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Presented by Andrea Gage-Michaels, J.D., M.D.R.

The Attorney’s Role in Identifying and Addressing Elder Abuse

Our new Legal Affairs Advisor, Andrea Gage-Michaels, J.D., M.D.R., discusses an issue that many elder law attorneys may not be equipped to recognize — elder abuse.

Through her experience working with elder abuse victims, Andrea shares her insights on the forms and signs of elder abuse. She also details how to address the difficult topic of elder abuse with your senior clients.

Amy: Hello, I’m Amy Beacham, Communications Director for Krause Financial Services. Welcome to Industry Insights. In this series, we discuss news, updates, and hot discussion topics that affect the elder law space and that are relevant to you as an elder law attorney. Working on hundreds of cases per month and working with attorneys from across the country, we see trends that affect this area of planning, and we want to share some of those insights with you today. Today, we have our Legal Affairs Advisor, Andrea Gage-Michaels, to discuss an important topic many elder law attorneys might not be equipped to recognize: elder abuse. Welcome, Andrea.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having me.

Amy: So, can you start by telling us a little bit about your background with elder abuse victims?

Andrea: I’d be happy to. Prior to joining Krause Financial Services as the Legal Affairs Advisor and opening my own private practice, I worked for the Elder Rights Project at Legal Action where we worked with victims of elder abuse. And that was defined as people who were 60 and over who were victims of crime.

Amy: And I know it’s a broad term, but can you define elder abuse for us and describe some of the different forms that it can take?

Andrea: You can look to statutes in several states to look for a definition of elder abuse. It is a very overwhelming topic, indeed. But we can look to the statutes for guidance on that. In Wisconsin, elder abuse is defined as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, or unreasonable confinement or restraint. And that sounds like a really long list of items, and some people may be tempted to think that lawmakers were just trying to envision a worst-case scenario. But it turns out that many elder abuse victims are suffering from many of those types of abuse at the same time.

Amy: And what are some signs that attorneys should be looking for regarding elder abuse when working with seniors and their families?

Andrea: There are a number of signs that attorneys can look for when they’re consulting with older people to try to figure out if they’re victims of elder abuse. Sometimes you can tell from the very first meeting. If you’ve been contacted by the adult child or spouse of an older person or a loved one who is very insistent that the older person in their life needs to consult with an attorney, that can be a warning sign. If they arrive at the appointment, are very insistent that they’re part of the meeting, you can really start to spot some red flags that the person that they’re accompanying may be the victim of elder abuse. Sometimes though, they can come across as very friendly, and the potential client themselves is very eager to have them in the meeting. One of the core components of elder abuse is that the abuse victim has been convinced that they can’t handle anything on their own. They have come to really, truly believe that they’re incapable of making their own decisions, that they’re incapable of handling their finances. And they’ve also become very isolated. They’ve been convinced that they cannot speak to a professional about what is going on in their life, typically because they’ve been convinced that they’re just not smart enough to handle it on their own. So, when that elder client enters your office and says, “No, I definitely want my son or daughter to come into this meeting with me. I might have trouble paying attention. I need them to take notes.” That’s still not a sure sign that that person is safe. What I would do, especially if that potential client came my way as a result of a referral from a loved one or a friend, is start the meeting out normally and ask that person to step out for a few minutes. Tell them as a matter of confidentiality that I need to speak to the potential client alone for just a few minutes. If the person who’s accompanying them acts suddenly hostile, has even microaggressions, or any signs of being displeased that they have to step out, that can be a real telltale sign that they are indeed an abuser. Try to watch the body language of the person who’s accompanying your client. Oftentimes, though, it’s not as direct. You might encounter a client on a completely different cause of action and learn over time that they have been victimized. Some of the typical causes of action that a client will present with are the result of financial difficulty. If you’re speaking to a client who is facing eviction, foreclosure, they come to you because they feel that their identity has been stolen. But they may still be under the assumption that it was stolen by a stranger. If they’re vaguely complaining of financial difficulties or any signs that they’re having financial difficulty can be a sign that they’re the victim of elder abuse. One of the reasons that elder abuse is so pernicious is because abuse victims don’t always recognize that they’re the victim of a crime. Because their abuser has been so successful at making them believe that they are incompetent when it comes to handling their finances, they may not realize that what is going on with them is the direct result of somebody taking something away from them or mistreating them.

Amy: Sure. Now, if an attorney does recognize signs of elder abuse with their clients, what do you recommend that they do?

Andrea: I would recommend that attorneys really focus on listening. Elder abuse victims have a very difficult time coming to terms with the fact that they are indeed victims. A lot of elder abuse victims are being abused by adult children or spouses. And when it’s a spouse, because our society has come along so far in recognizing the signs of domestic abuse and what a person should do in response, they have a little bit easier time coming forward and exiting that situation. When somebody’s being abused by an adult child, the guilt and shame that’s associated with that is compounded because it’s their child. They believe it’s their fault they’re being abused because they’ve raised that person. So, it can take a very long time to come to terms with it and a very long time to move forward with a cause of action. If you’re working with a client who is coming to you with an entirely different situation, and you start to suspect that they’re the victim of elder abuse, I would strongly encourage taking notes every time they mention that situation and bringing it up in the conversation at an upcoming appointment, at another encounter, and pledging to work with that client. Sometimes a friendly voice, whether it’s a neighbor, it’s a loved one, or a trusted attorney who’s been helping somebody on their will or helping somebody with their end-of-life planning, that friendly voice and that encouragement can be what it takes to help that elder abuse victim to go from victim to survivor.

Amy: Sure. That’s some wonderful information. Do you have any resources in mind that attorneys can look to if they want to learn more about elder abuse?

Andrea: I would strongly encourage elder law attorneys to consider branching out and expanding their services. If they haven’t provided family law services in the past and are reticent to take on injunction cases, elder at-risk injunctions or domestic abuse injunctions, or the terminology that they go by in your jurisdiction, I would strongly encourage elder law attorneys to take a look at that and consider adding it to their practice. Whether it’s studying up a little bit on something they may have not done in a while or adding practitioners to their firm that can broach those areas, I would strongly encourage elder law attorneys to really take a holistic approach. If attorneys are working together and working collaboratively across practice areas and doing what it takes and working in coordination with social workers, with counties, with different providers, such as civil legal aid providers who may be able to step in and work on the abuse portions and those causes of action–if we’re all working together, then we can really make some major strides in reversing this terrible trend of elder abuse.

Amy: Wow. Well, thank you. That was really enlightening information. And I’m sure our audience will really love hearing about this.

Andrea: Thank you.

Amy: So, thank you again, Andrea. And for more information on how to recognize the signs of elder abuse and the steps you can take to help your senior clients, contact Andrea and the rest of our legal team at 855-552-5893. Thanks for watching.

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Presented by Andrea Gage-Michaels, J.D., M.D.R.
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