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A Growing Concern: The At-Risk Adult


Do you ever worry about the neighbor who looks disheveled and disoriented the few times that he comes out of his home? Do you wonder about the number of caregivers that come and go from your parents’ home—and have access to everything in it? Do your parents seem anxious or afraid? Have you been to a friend’s home and discovered an alarming lack of basic necessities such as food and toiletries? Or maybe you have discovered extremely unsanitary conditions in the home as well as a lack of personal hygiene?

The above can all be signs of abuse, neglect and exploitation of older and disabled adults, or at-risk adults. Most of us think of elder abuse or abuse or neglect of the disabled as occurring in homes—nursing homes, group homes, assisted living facilities, etc. But with the trend toward in-home care, and more people staying in their homes as they grow older, problems can and do occur outside of institutional settings.

If an at-risk adult exhibits a change in behavior, appears agitated or anxious, or is apathetic or withdrawn, that adult may be experiencing abuse or neglect. If a caregiver to an at-risk adult does not want you to be alone with the adult, or tries to limit your access to the adult and/or the home of the at-risk adult, this may be an indicator that abuse or exploitation of some kind is occurring.


Elder abuse is a growing national problem. According to the National Council on Aging, NCOA, one in ten Americans aged 60+ have experienced some form of elder abuse. This number may even be deceptively low, since one recent study estimated that only one in fourteen cases of elder abuse are ever reported to authorities. Financial exploitation is even less reported; one in forty-four cases are reported according to the National Adult Protective Services Association, or NAPSA. For more information, visit

In almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect cases, the perpetrator is a family member. The vast majority of incidents of financial exploitation reported to NAPSA involve perpetrators related to or in trusting relationships with the victim, although scams/frauds by strangers are also common.


Abuse and neglect can take many forms. Threats of physical harm, confinement, withholding of food, water and medication are all forms of abuse. Unsanitary living conditions, bed sores, malnutrition/dehydration, and lack of things such as glasses or false teeth are evidence of neglect. Self-neglect can be harder to discern, and can result from mental health issues, dementia, depression, financial hardship, or problems with performing self-care. Some indicators of self-neglect are: refusing/failing to take medication; neglecting personal hygiene; lacking basic necessities and/or utilities.

At-risk adults are vulnerable to financial exploitation. Less-than-scrupulous caregivers, unethical repair and delivery people, and anyone else given access to the adult’s home and/or finances can make fraudulent charges on credit cards, take valuables, sign checks or documents over to themselves, and deplete accounts.


Certain professionals are required by law to report suspected abuse, neglect and exploitation. For example, a doctor who documents a dramatic weight loss in an at-risk adult and suspects it is due to neglect must report it to the appropriate authority. Similarly, if a physical or occupational therapist working with an at-risk adult notices bruising that she suspects is due to abuse, she must report it. The reporting can be to local law enforcement at 911; to Georgia’s Division of Aging Services’ Adult Protection Services (404) 657-5250 if the at-risk adult lives out in the community; to GA Crisis and Access Line 1-800-715-4225), or GA Dept. of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, or Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection (404) 651-8600. Reporters have immunity from civil and criminal liability unless they act in bad faith.


The type of legal action pursued depends on the type of harm inflicted; i.e. if the at-risk adult was neglected, an action in negligence might be appropriate. Caregivers have a duty of care toward those they assist, and neglect is a sign that the duty has been breached. Showing that the at-risk adult suffered harm due to the breach—that the neglect led to a fall or an infection e.g.— is the job of a good personal injury attorney.

If financial exploitation has occurred, an action for fraud (e.g. unauthorized use of credit cards or forging the adults’s signature on checks) might be filed as well as criminal charges sought. If an at-risk adult was being coerced into giving money and/or valuables to caregivers, an action based on intimidation or threat of harm, or even undue influence could be taken. Determining the appropriate legal recourse for the harm suffered by an at-risk adult is one of the many reasons to consult a personal injury attorney experienced in abuse, neglect and exploitation of at-risk adults.


Dave Thomas is one of those experienced attorneys. He is an advocate for at-risk adults, and will fight to recover for economic loss and emotional distress. If you or someone you know is an at-risk adult who has suffered abuse, neglect or financial exploitation, contact Dave Thomas of The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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