Alone, sick and confused

Guest post by Dawn Shumaker Smith, DCF Circuit 1 Adult Protective Investigator Supervisor in Northwest Florida. This post is in recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15.

DCF responded to more than 64,000 reports of abuse of seniors and adults with disabilities last year. Many of the reports involve self-neglect, when vulnerable adults are no longer able to provide for their own health and safety. DCF helps them get the help they need and deserve.


“… Food items in the pantry and refrigerator were moldy, old and spoiled …”

The Report: ­­

Escambia Adult Investigations received a report regarding a 62-year-old vulnerable lady with organic brain syndrome related to brain cancer. Chemotherapy further damaged her brain and caused severe short-term memory loss. She wanders away from home, gets lost, forgets to eat for days and gives shady people blank checks for unnecessary things. She walks away from the stove, forgetting she is cooking. She does not know where she is or where her children are. There are concerns for her safety and susceptibility for financial exploitation.

DCF investigates:

This remarkable lady’s history is stunning. She was a decorated naval officer, an activist and lover of her cats. She was an actress, even starring in a movie with Tom Cruise. She built an amazing career and never got married. She saved her money, invested well and became a millionaire. She adopted two children. But all was not well. She was living in California when she learned she had brain cancer. When her father became extremely ill, she packed up her kids for a quick trip to Pensacola visit with him.

It was not long after her arrival that her father, her only living blood relative, passed away. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and before long, child protective services was knocking on her door about the children not being in school and missing appointments. She could not manage to get her thoughts to tell people she needed to make her way home to California. The missed appointments and other issues compounded, and the children were no longer able to safely remain in her care and were placed in a foster home. Her world was literally falling apart and she could not understand why. Her failing memory meant she could not comprehend her own limitations and what was happening around her.

DCF action:

Our Adult Protective Investigators reached out to her. It was apparent she was not eating, taking medication or paying bills. Valuable items were disappearing from the home, taken from her by people who were allegedly taking them to a charitable agency. Food items in the pantry and refrigerator were moldy, old and spoiled. Her clothes were falling off her.

Investigators decided that she needed to be removed from the home for her own safety but she had no family to care for her needs. The people that she had given blank checks to were the people she wanted to stay with. This wasn’t an option because it would have only further exposed her to financial exploitation. She didn’t have easy access to her bank accounts in California to pay sitters to help her remain safely at home but her accounts remained active. She was paying $1,000 a week for someone to care for her cats in California. She had paid $50,000 to replace a perfectly good kitchen floor in her father’s home simply because someone came to the door and offered to do it. We knew this woman needed medical attention and brought her to the hospital, where she was admitted for a few days.

In the meantime, our agency petitioned the courts for emergency protective services. We arranged for her admission to a local assisted living facility upon discharge from the hospital. We were happy to arrange supervised visitation with her children. Lutheran Services of Florida became her guardian and worked toward corralling her assets and ridding her of the seedy characters in her life. Under our protective supervision, she got better and became more accepting of her guardian. Our collective goal was to get her safely back into the community.

Her guardian made arrangements for 24-hour sitters, housekeepers and lawn care and turned the utilities back on at her father’s house. The home was filled with healthy and fresh food for her and the visiting children. It was time for her to return home, but not to California. She was, however, safely and securely back into a regular home environment. She could see her children once again regularly and was reunited with her pets to aid in her recovery.

Today, she remains at home with the help of 24-hour attendants and the support of Lutheran Services and her neighbors. Her medical needs are being met and slowing the progression of the disease. She can now hold her head high with pride for the remarkable progress she has made and the life she has lived.

This story is true, albeit unusual because this vulnerable adult had the financial resources and medical insurance to help pull her out. In many Adult Protective Services situations, that is not the case. Many vulnerable adults must choose between food and medication each month. Their choices sometimes have an immediate impact on their health. Frequently, family members are the alleged perpetrators, taking the liquid resources available. Often, DCF intervenes when adult children would rather have momma or grandpa home so they can use their Social Security checks instead of using their resources to meet their everyday needs. DCF’s Adult Protective Services ensures that obstacles encountered by the vulnerable adult are not permanent.

A vulnerable adult’s safety is so critically important. You can help. Take a stand in the fight against elder abuse.

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