February 20, 2018 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

During Labor Day weekend in 2014, Jill Panzer and her youngest aunt set out for a seven-hour drive to Hemingford, Nebraska, to pick up Jill’s grandmother, Edna. The two were going under the guise that Edna would be staying in Omaha for a few weeks. Unbeknownst to Edna or her eldest daughter (who was also Edna’s caretaker), the two planned on keeping Edna in Omaha, because they suspected she was being exploited by her caregiver.

Panzer, the granddaughter, suspected something was amiss because her mother (Edna’s second of three daughters) said Edna—who had turned 90 a few years earlier—was appearing more and more confused during visits. Her eldest aunt moved into Edna’s home in the fall of 2011, months after Edna stumbled over her ottoman and injured her back.

Panzer says Edna’s eldest daughter began giving her mother the drug Lorazepam without a prescription to help Edna sleep at night and to help with her anxiety. Edna was later legally prescribed the drug. Then, the granddaughter says her youngest aunt visited Edna in July 2014. During that visit, she reported back to family in Omaha that the matriarch had a gash on her arm from a fall. She appeared extremely confused. Edna’s finances were also showing irregularities, such as missed rent payments that were due to Edna.

“We started looking and realizing there were a bunch of little things happening,” Panzer says.

When they arrived at Edna’s house, Panzer and her youngest aunt noticed Edna wasn’t packed for the trip. Edna’s eldest daughter told Panzer that Edna wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make the trip to Omaha. In Edna’s home, her eldest and youngest daughter began arguing. While Edna and her daughters were talking, Panzer went to her grandmother’s room and began packing whatever clothes she could into suitcases and sacks. Panzer would later find out that many of the things she packed wouldn’t even fit her grandmother.

“I literally just packed up my entire car while those two women were going back and forth about everything,” Panzer says.

As the arguing continued, Edna began to feel ill. She went to the bathroom. Panzer tried to convince her to go back to Omaha with them. Panzer told her youngest aunt, “If I have to call the sheriff, we are leaving this house today with my grandmother.”

Panzer got her grandmother’s walker and helped her into the van. As she buckled her grandmother in, Edna’s youngest and eldest daughters were still talking. Finally, Edna’s youngest daughter got in the van with Panzer.

“I hit my power button, the sliding door in the van shut. I threw it in reverse, and we just drove,” Panzer says.

During the drive, Edna was upset. Eventually, the mood calmed enough that they ate fried chicken at a restaurant in Broken Bow on the way back to Omaha. When they finally arrived, Edna stayed at her youngest daughter’s home.

Panzer and her youngest aunt arranged medical evaluations for Edna. Doctors determined Edna didn’t show signs of physical abuse, but they did note her blood pressure medication was being administered improperly.

Along with scheduling medical evaluations, Panzer began making calls to close any financial accounts that Edna’s eldest daughter had access to, including Edna’s credit cards and bank accounts. On paper, this would appear to be a challenge, because Edna’s eldest daughter’s husband was her power of attorney. All it took was Edna’s verbal OK to close many of her accounts.

“It was that stinkin’ easy. All I had to do was put my grandmother on the phone. It’s almost criminal,” Panzer says.

As Edna’s financial and medical issues were being resolved, the matter of placing her in an assisted living center still loomed. Neither Panzer nor her youngest aunt were able to care for Edna full time. Panzer’s mother (Edna’s middle daughter) lived hours away. Panzer says her grandmother reluctantly agreed to stay in an assisted living center for rehab, but not permanently.

“She’s buried two husbands. She’s always been a fiercely independent, proud woman,” Panzer says.

Since that Labor Day trip in 2014, Edna has continued to live in the same assisted living center. Panzer was able to get a new, independent power of attorney for Edna. Her home in Hemingford was sold, and Panzer had to hire lawyers and go to court to evict Edna’s grandchild (the daughter of Edna’s eldest daughter) from Edna’s house.

“I don’t have a unique story,” Panzer says.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists the forms of elder abuse as the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of an older adult. It also lists neglect and financial exploitation as other forms of abuse. In 2016, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported that Adult Protective Services received 126 cases of elder abuse in Douglas and Sarpy counties.

Attorney Susan Spahn handles estate and trust matters at Endacott, Peetz & Timmer law firm. As people’s life expectancy continues to increase, so does the time when people are living in a “gray area,” which Spahn defines as a place where people are capable of living independently, but at the same time, are vulnerable to exploitation from family members, or telephone and internet-based scams.

“They can tell stories from the past that are accurate, but if you ask them to make a decision that requires thought, they cannot do it,” Spahn says.

When a parent becomes less and less able to make financial decisions for themselves, their children are the most likely to be called to handle the finances. It’s no coincidence that the most common perpetrators of financial abuse for elders come from immediate family members.

Spahn compares the hidden scourge of elder abuse to the rampant spousal abuse that went unreported in the middle of the 20th century. “Nobody would talk about it. And it was viewed as a civil matter,” she says.

Some of the biggest temptations for elder abuse comes when a family member may still be reliant on their parents for financial assistance. Then, when the parent becomes unable to handle their own financial matters, the dependent child suddenly has access to a parent’s bank account and starts writing checks to themselves, Spahn says.

Another issue Spahn has seen is with inheritance, and children who are expecting their inheritance to help them as they age themselves.

“If mom and dad are holding on to 95, then that means they’re approaching their retirement without their inheritance, and they don’t like that,” Spahn says.

Spahn says the best way to prevent financial elder abuse is to appoint someone they trust the most with their bills as their power of attorney.

“I tell my clients the power of attorney is more important than their will,” Spahn says. “The will isn’t pulled out until after they’re gone.”

If a person either doesn’t have children, or has children who live too far away to be an effective power of attorney, Spahn says the next best step is to appoint a corporate fiduciary to handle their financial matters. Most banks have trust departments, where people can appoint independent financial guardians.

If a parent has more than one child, Spahn says one of the best ways to alleviate family tension amongst siblings is to have the designated power of attorney provide copies of banking and financial statements, and use software like Quicken to provide online access to such information.

“If one child is not willing to do that, then that’s a red flag,” Spahn says. “If mom is still alive, and the kids are hiring lawyers, they’ve all just lost.”

To report elder abuse, people are urged to call Adult Protective Services at 800-652-1999. Callers may remain anonymous. Visit the National Center on Elder Abuse at ncea.acl.gov for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.