At a home for the elderly in Wheat Ridge, Ticia Mueller sits by a fountain in a courtyard with her 92-year-old mother, Patricia. Mueller says her mom recently went through a terrible ordeal at another assisted living facility, which she detected because of bruises on her mom.
“Just all over her body," said Mueller. "She would have hematomas on her arms, on her hands. The nurse would have to lance some of them.”
At first a nurse practitioner dismissed Mueller's concerns, attributing the bruises to older people having thin skin. But then another staff member reported seeing a female caregiver punch Mueller’s mom in the face. A subsequent review of videotape from security cameras caught the same caregiver manhandling her mother, even pulling her hair and snapping her head back.
That kind of abuse is a growing problem. Last year 17,000 elder abuse cases were filed throughout the state -- a dramatic increase of 41 percent from the year before, according to the state's Division of Aging. (Nearly half of those cases were screened by Adult Protective Services and investigated.) It came after the state mandated that doctors, social workers, first responders, pharmacists, and a long list of professionals report any suspected abuse of an older adult.
Boulder Police Det. Traci Cravitz said her department is seeing a lot of those kinds of cases.
“Tons! Tons of financial exploitation of at risk population," Cravitz said. "Daily. Multiple cases a day.”
Cravitz says many of those cases involve phone scams in which someone from out of state, or even out of the country, calls an elderly person and charms, persuades or even threatens them into sending money.
“The elderly population is just very trusting," Cravitz said. "If someone calls them on the phone saying I need your bank information, I need your social security number, they don’t know to ask follow up questions." Instead of asking, "'Wait. Who are you? Where are you calling from? Can I call you back to verify that?' They just immediately open up their checkbook and start writing numbers," said Cravitz.
The result, she says, can be disastrous.
“It’s awful," said Cravitz. "People lose their home, they lose their life savings, they lose their retirement.”
“Crimes against the elderly are probably the lowest-risk and highest-reward crimes of the 21st century," said Jane Walsh, lead prosecutor in Boulder County’s community protection division. She says the elderly are easy targets. But cases involving victims with shaky memories or failing health can be hard to prosecute.
“There is really a huge increase in this type of crime and I would say particularly on the financial side," said Walsh.
“It seemed like one very logical, common sense, small step towards solving a very large problem affecting Coloradans across the state," said Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, the bill's co-sponsor.
Back in her office, prosecutor Jane Walsh plays on a computer screen a deposition from a recent case that illustrates the issue. A man in his late 90s struggles to remember details of various checks totaling $43,000. He signed them over to alleged scammers in an asphalt paving scheme.
A defense attorney questions him about some documents, asking "didn’t you mail them to the police?"
The elderly witness seemed flustered. "I sure don’t remember, I don’t remember," he said.
“In elder cases, you’re always working against the clock," said Walsh.
Walsh says the two to four months it takes now is a big obstacle to making a case viable “before your elderly victim gets to the point where they're not really able to testify or sometimes sadly have passed away.”
AARP was one of the groups that pushed for the new law.
“I don’t have any doubt that it’ll make a difference," said elder attorney Dennis Alexander, AARP's legislative advocate. "There will be cases that will be prosecuted that couldn't have been without this bill.”
And it’s likely there will be plenty of cases as Colorado’s elderly population skyrockets.
The caregiver who hurt Ticia Mueller's mom was eventually prosecuted, pleaded guilty, sentenced to 30 days in jail, probation and a heavy fine. Mueller says the abuse might have been caught earlier but her mom couldn’t really say what had happened.
“My mom, a couple of times had told me, ‘Someone is hurting me here,’" said Mueller. "But with her dementia, you didn’t know if it was true."
The way her mom was abused, and how it went undetected, “breaks my heart."
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