HELENA — State and local officials said today the number of Montanans reported as victims of elder abuse increased again in 2021.

According to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), about 4,900 Montanans were victims of elder abuse in 2021. This is the second year in a row where the number of reported victims has increased. In 2020, a total of 4,500 Montanans were victim of elder abuse, an increase at the time of nearly 30 percent since 2018.

This alarming statistic was highlighted during a World Elder Awareness Day event at the Bank of Rockies. 

Officials with the Bank of the Rockies, Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, City of Helena, AARP, DPHHS, Montana Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Montana Board of Crime Control (MBCC) joined forces to highlight elder abuse in the state and provide ways people can help address the issue. 

Governor Greg Gianforte, the Lewis and Clark County Commissioners, and the City of Helena all issued proclamations in support of World Elder Abuse Awareness. 

According to the National Council on Aging, approximately one in 10 Americans aged 60-plus have experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimates range as high as 5 million elders who are abused each year. One study cited by the NCOA estimates that only one in 24 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.

“Every year, abuse and exploitation rob older Americans of $3 billion — and this is only the amount reported,” said Tim Summers, AARP Montana State Director. “When criminals take advantage of older persons by forging a signature or coercing them to sign a will, the impact goes far beyond the pocketbook and affects the physical and mental health of the victim. Those who perpetrate these crimes can be a stranger, such as an aide who comes into the home to assist with daily activities, or they can be someone in a position of trust, such as a family member or a guardian.”

Elder abuse refers to intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver or trusted individual that causes harm to an older person. It takes many forms, including neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, and financial exploitation. Adult Protective Services (APS) is an investigation unit designed to protect vulnerable adults, and provide protective services through support by local, county and state programs.

Further, the number of referrals APS received related to physical abuse or neglect has increased from 9,853 in 2021 to 11,557 in 2022, an 18 percent increase. Physical signs of abuse and neglect include isolation from friends and other family members, unexplained bruising, burns, or scars, dirty appearance or changes due to medication. One significant sign is the way a caregiver/family member treats the elder in public, such as pressuring to pay for items or speaking to the elder in a demeaning manner. “We need to educate and encourage the public to report such signs to APS or law enforcement,” said Barb Smith, Administrator, DPHHS Senior and Long Term Care Division. “Knowing the signs can protect someone from further abuse or even death.”

APS investigates cases involving adults aged 60 and older and adults with disabilities age 18-59. While neglect and self-neglect are both investigated and substantiated most often, financial exploitation is also on the rise nationally and in Montana.

The average victim nationally loses $120,000 through financial exploitation. In many cases, the person abusing, neglecting or exploiting the elderly is a person in a trust relationship to the older person such as spouse, child, or friend.

Bank of the Rockies President Mike Grove said it’s vital to keep the spotlight on this issue. He stressed that networking and partnership building between elder justice stakeholders and the financial industry is crucial. "Only through continuing these conversations and normalizing them can we continue to address this ever-present issue affecting our older residents,” Grove said. “We have to keep the conversations going."

Jennell Huff, Community Outreach Coordinator for Bank of the Rockies emphasized the importance of partnerships. She pointed to opportunities for staff training from various agencies, including APS, AARP, and the Alzheimer's Association, ensure that multiple layers of protection are afforded customers, and that staff is well versed in talking to the most vulnerable. "Elder justice issues are a multi-generational issue,” Huff said. “If we can begin these conversations now and engage Montanans of all ages, then we can begin affecting real change early."

There are resources available to help. For example, to help prevent financial exploitation, it’s crucial that individuals have their legal documents, such as estate planning and Powers of Attorney, prepared well ahead of a medical emergency and to share those documents with a trusted circle of family and friends.

Officials say the following measures can help prevent elder abuse:

Review all legal documents, especially estate planning documents with a legal professional.

Make sure to have a valid, and protective Health and Financial Durable Powers of Attorney. Creating specific, limited and well-drafted documents can help protect you against financial exploitation and make it easier to honor your wishes, when you are not able to speak for yourself. 

Draft a detailed plan and communicate it with friends and family members. This is a vital step to prevent future abuse, as well as ease strain on your family and caregivers. 

Estate planning documents should be reviewed periodically, but especially anytime there is a death of a named person, a divorce, a new decade passes, a new diagnosis is received or there is any significant decline in physical or mental well-being. For assistance with legal documents, Montanans are encouraged to contact the Legal Services Developer Program.

AARP has also made available a Montana specific tip sheet with valuable elder abuse prevention information.

To report abuse, neglect or exploitation call Adult Protective Services intake at 1-844-277-9300 or go to www.aps.mt.gov.

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