For Caregivers: When to Contact Protective Services?

January 10, 2017

by: Margie Johnson Ware, Aging and Health Specialist.

If you look at any website that discusses issues of aging, caregiving or preparing financially for anticipated Medicaid services, you probably see a number of questions like this:

  • My mother lives across the country, and seems to have a new “friend” who has inserted herself into Mom’s life. I’m afraid she’s being taken advantage of, but Mom doesn’t want to discuss it.
  • My brother lives with my Dad and basically mooches off him. He doesn’t pay rent and I just found out that Dad has run up tremendous credit card debt – something he would never have thought of doing just five years ago.  What can I do?
  • The neighbors just called said they’ve seen vermin around my sister’s house. She never comes out and the porch is piled full of old furniture and cat litter. Is this my problem?
  • The doctor told me that my husband can’t be left alone anymore. But he won’t allow anyone else in our home and I feel like a prisoner. What am I supposed to do?

Each and every one of these situations is daunting. What’s probably also true is that it has been a crisis waiting to happen. Especially when we don’t see people for a while, it’s easy to miss the signs that something is “off” until a fall, an auto accident, or a scam alerts us that all is not as it should be.

What does Adult Protective Services Do?

One of the most important resources to consider is your local Adult Protective Services (APS). APS are social services provided to abused, neglected, or exploited older adults, as well as adults of all ages with significant disabilities (in most states). APS is typically administered by local or state health departments and includes a multidisciplinary approach to helping older adults. Services range from the initial investigation of mistreatment to providing health and supportive services for the neglected senior in question. They may also lead to legal interventions if necessary, including the appointment of a legal guardian.

Forms of abuse include physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, as well as financial exploitation and neglect from a caregiver. Most states also include “self-neglect” as a reason for qualifying for APS. Self-neglect refers to a person who is unable to care for themselves due to physical or mental impairments. To learn more, check out NCOA’s fact sheet on elder abuse. Another good resource is the “Get Help” directory from the National Center on Elder Abuse.

When Should I Call APS?

First, the most important thing to keep in mind: competent elders are adults who are entitled to make their own decisions. Even if you don’t always agree with them. Mom is allowed to have new friends. She’s also allowed to have a romantic life. Your brother who is crashing with them for awhile is not necessarily taking advantage of them. Having said that, it’s difficult to know at a distance whether a situation is exploitative or not. You may need to pay a visit in order to better assess the situation.

Secondly, another thing to keep in mind is that although you may report to a local agency about a situation where abuse, neglect or self-neglect seems to be an issue, do not expect that you will get a “report back” from the agency telling you about the outcome of the potential intervention. Once more, you may need to visit your aging loved one in person in order to fully assess both the problem and the solution.

Finally, there are often intermediate steps you can take before you call protective services. Do you know any of your senior’s other friends and neighbors in the area? Are they a member of a faith community or volunteer organization? Call someone close to them that you trust, and see if they can check in with your loved one and honestly assess the situation. In addition, there are an array of agencies and organizations in every community that offer family and caregiver support services that can be a great resource for caregivers who are living with their at-risk senior. Check out the Family Caregiver Alliance which has a Family Care Navigator for help in your community.

All that being said, a good Adult Protective Services team is often the best possible step you can take, especially with issues of health and safety. Adult Protective Services teams work hand in hand with other public agencies, and can offer targeted, multi-step solutions to complicated problems. These are painful, complicated and heartbreaking situations. There are rarely “good” answers. But know that whatever your problem is, the professionals have seen it before. Nothing will surprise them, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.