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.

Each and every Area Agency on Aging (known as “Triple A’s” in the aging world) has an Adult Protective Services department. These services are Federally-funded and serve the entire over 60 community.  You do not have to live near a specific AAA to call them.  You can call from across the country to ask questions about services.  You can also call your local AAA to inquire about how to deal with a prickly situation involving someone who lives across the country.

So 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.

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. You may need to go there 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?  Call someone close to them that you trust , and see if they can check in with your loved one and honestly assess the situation.

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. Area Agencies on Aging also offer Family Caregiver Support services that can be a great resource for caregivers who are living with their at-risk senior. Ask them to help you problem-solve.  The hardest decision will be whether to have the person declared incompetent so that you have more authority to direct the situation.

There 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.