What Can Happen to Older Adults Abandoned By Family

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

The idea of family abandoning an older adult can seem abhorrent to many people. It is normal to jump to the conclusion that leaving a vulnerable elder is cruel and heartless, and in many cases, it is.

However, there can be a lot of frustrating factors and a lack of resources at play that create these tragic circumstances. As a result, sometimes people feel they have no choice. 

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With that said, the consequences of deciding to abandon an older adult can be significant and against the law. The stress of caring for an aging parent who refuses care or is angry, belligerent, and difficult can send some family caregivers over the edge, and they simply walk away.

When you refuse to care for an aging adult’s health and financial well-being that you have primary responsibility for, you may be held legally responsible.

What’s Considered ‘Elderly Abandonment?’

Elder abandonment is defined as the purposeful and permanent desertion of an older person. The elder may be left at a hospital, a nursing home, or in a public location. Perhaps the abandoning person feels overburdened or believes they lack the resources to care for the victim. 

In short, in most states, elderly abandonment is a form of elder abuse or neglect. There aren’t many statistics related to elder abandonment because many incidents go unreported. In addition, the term abandonment is sometimes used interchangeably with the term elder neglect, which is the failure or refusal to fulfill one's duties or obligations to an older adult. Elderly abandonment can take several forms.

1. Refusing to provide adequate healthcare or basic needs for an aging adult

Although defined differently by each state, abandonment generally includes not providing for a vulnerable adult’s healthcare or basic needs. Examples include not providing transportation to critical appointments, neglecting healthcare, or otherwise not attending to medical needs. The primary caregiver is also responsible for food, hygiene, hydration, and shelter.

2. Refusing to find appropriate and safe housing

An older adult who lives in an unsafe environment requires another housing situation. A family member who refuses to find appropriate and safe housing is abandoning the elder. Also, in the event an aging adult is in assisted living and has to leave because the facility can no longer provide for their needs, the family is responsible for finding other placements.

3. Refusing to make surrogate healthcare decisions

If an older adult clearly does not have decision-making capacity, someone has to be responsible for helping them with significant healthcare decisions. Even if the elder doesn’t have a medical power of attorney or guardian, a family member needs to help make those decisions so that the elder can consent to surgery or other urgent medical treatment. 

4. Refusing to pay for care

When a family member has been responsible for paying for an aging adult’s housing and then refuses to continue paying or finding an alternative, that is considered abandonment. It might also be a red flag if the older adult has the funds to pay, but a family member refuses to pay bills that ensure the elder’s safe and consistent care. 

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What May Happen When Family Abandons an Aging Adult?

Aging adults are abandoned in almost every situation you can imagine. In other words, wherever an aging adult is, they are abandoned. Some of the reasons family members abandon an aging adult are the following:

  • Caregiver burnout: The primary caregiver is exhausted and feels that they can no longer perform the caregiver duties necessary. Some aging adults require 24-hour care, and there may not be any resources available to help family caregivers.
  • Family conflict: The primary caregiver has a contentious relationship with an aging adult and doesn’t want to take care of them and doesn’t feel they have the responsibility to do so.
  • Money: The primary caregiver can no longer support the aging adult financially and therefore abandons them.

Let’s look at each possible abandonment situation and what can happen in each case.

An aging adult is abandoned at home

When an aging, vulnerable adult is abandoned at home, the situation can reach a crisis before anyone notices anything is wrong. For someone who is isolated and doesn’t get visitors, sometimes a neighbor or even the postal person will become alarmed and investigate further.

Gaining access to the home can also be traumatic. Aging adults who have been abandoned and engaging in self-neglect are sometimes found in filthy and unsanitary conditions with no food to eat, and utilities turned off.

Most people will immediately call 911 for life-threatening situations or contact the police or Adult Protective Services. If the police are called first, they will contact Adult Protective Services, who are responsible for investigating the situation.

Authorities will attempt to reach either the responsible family member or any other family that can help. It is not uncommon for another out-of-town family to assume that their loved one is being cared for. In those cases, they will respond by doing what is necessary to help. 

If there is no other family member who will help, the case is turned over to the state or court system, depending on if the victim appears to have capacity or not. Depending on state laws, Adult Protective Services may deem the person able to make their own decisions, even if they aren’t in the person’s best interest.

In a crisis where it appears the person may not have capacity due to dementia, Adult Protective Services can contact the state for emergency guardianship proceedings. 

Aging adult is abandoned at the hospital

When an aging adult is abandoned at the hospital, it is the hospital’s responsibility to care for them until placement or another family member can be found. There have been reports of adults being abandoned in hospitals where they keep the person for much longer than their medical condition dictates, as they have no place to go.

In these cases, a hospital social worker or case manager works on finding placement in a facility. The challenge in this situation and others is that no one has the authority to access the patient’s funds unless the person has the capacity to release funds for care. In many of these situations, the person may have dementia or a mental health problem where they cannot get funds or even know their financial situation. 

The case manager may contact the state guardianship division to initiate an emergency guardianship or conservatorship to gain lawful access to the person’s finances and make healthcare decisions on their behalf. 

Aging adult is abandoned in assisted living

There are two scenarios when an aging adult is abandoned in assisted living. One is if the primary caregiver stops paying the assisted living bill and does not make payment arrangements or refuses to move the person to another setting.

The other is when the primary caregiver stops caring for the person in assisted living or memory care. They stop arranging for medical care or assistance with making medical decisions.

In both of these cases, assisted living staff will attempt to reach out to other family members. Suppose the assisted living facility can’t reach any other family member. In that case, some will take the time to find an appropriate placement, but they may have the legal right to evict the resident. Or, the assisted living facility may keep the resident pro bono.

Aging adult is abandoned in a nursing home

Medicaid covers approximately two-thirds of residents of nursing homes. Medicaid pays for most of the nursing home care expenses, which means that families don’t have to contribute financially.

Statistics on how many families abandon an aging adult in a nursing home are hard to come by since many of these cases probably aren’t reported. In a primary caregiver’s mind, their family member is receiving 24-hour care, so they are taken care of.

What Happens Legally When an Aging Adult Is Found Abandoned? 

In each of the above cases, the person responsible for an aging adult’s care has likely broken the law. Each state defines abandonment differently and may refer to it as neglect and further defines it as willful or passive abandonment.

The Elder Justice Act enacted in 2010 is the federal law that protects older adults from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. There are several different legal pathways to holding a person responsible for abandonment.

Another family member pursues legal action 

Other concerned family members can pursue legal action against the person responsible for abandonment. If the caregiver is found guilty, they may receive fines or jail time. It is not unusual for a family member to accuse another family member of neglect and petition the court for guardianship if there are capacity concerns. Family conflict around care issues can drag on for months in the court system.

The state takes over

If an aging adult’s case is turned over to the state guardianship office, it is usually because the victim has very few assets and the situation is dire. Many state guardianship divisions have waiting lists and are overwhelmed. The state attorney general’s office can pursue legal action against the person who abandons the elder.

The court appoints a professional guardian

In cases where the abandoned aging adult does not appear to have the decision-making capacity to care for themselves, and no other family member steps forward, the court may appoint a professional guardian. Professional guardians charge for their services so the aging adult must have sufficient funds to pay for this service.

Aging Adult Abandoned by Family

If you or another family member struggles to care for an aging adult, it is crucial not to abandon them. Reach out for support through your local Aging and Adult Services. Talk with other family members about how to best meet your loved one’s healthcare and financial needs. 


Sources:
  1. Jojola, Jeremy. “People Without Caregivers End up Stranded in Hospitals.” Associated Press. 17 November 2018, apnews.com/article/e3e746f00c9f4329a107711bf1cce519
  2. “Nursing Homes - A Guide for Medicaid Beneficiaries’ Families and Helpers.” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, cms.gov/Medicare-Medicaid-Coordination/Fraud-Prevention/Medicaid-Integrity-Education/Downloads/nursinghome-beneficiary-factsheet.pdf.
  3. “The Elder Justice Act.” Administration for Community Living, 9 September 2017, acl.gov/about-acl/elder-justice-act.
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