By JOSH THALL
Capital News Service
LANSING– As the elder population of Michigan grows, lawmakers and coalitions throughout the state are working to prevent and punish elder abuse.
Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, recently introduced a pair of bills that would redefine certain punishments for crimes committed against elderly or vulnerable adults.
“Anytime you can pass legislation that either deters people from committing crimes, especially against seniors, or increases the punishments they face for committing the crimes, I think that’s a good thing to do,” said Derek Sova, chief of staff for Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker R- Lawton, who helped vote the bills through a Senate committee in mid-February.
Sova said Smith’s Senate bills do not deal will all forms of crimes against the elderly, but focus on assault and fraud to obtain an elder’s money or property.
Sova said under the new bills, some prison sentences and fines could double. The bills also would create enhanced sentencing for repeat offenders and make consecutive sentencing possible.
Virginia Boyce, a member of the Washtenaw County Elder Justice Coalition, said the focus on protecting the elderly makes sense as the aging population in Michigan increases.
Michigan’s senior population was about 2.7 million in 2010, an increase from 2.1 million in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seniors now make up about 28 percent of the state’s population.
Older residents are vulnerable because “they have money, number one,” Boyce said. “I think they are also viewed as weaker and more isolated. This is also a generation that respects authority, so if they are getting a call from who they think is the IRS, they’re going to listen. So the scams can prey on their respect for authority.”
Ryan Cowmeadow, advocacy manager for the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, a non-profit organization covering six counties in southeast Michigan, said the agency supports the bills to protect the region’s nearly 700,000 older adults — nearly 30 percent of the state’s total older adult population.
Cowmeadow said it is difficult to pinpoint just how many cases of elder abuse occur in Michigan each year because elders are often reluctant to go to the authorities.
“An older adult might not report if it is a family member committing the crime because they wouldn’t want to get them in trouble,” Cowmeadow said. “They may not want to be seen as being incompetent or unable to make decisions.”
Reports of elder abuse increased to nearly 34,000 in 2014 from about 21,000 in 2010, according to an audit report of Adult Protective Services cited by Cowmeadow.
The Washtenaw coalition is working to educate elders on how to report abuse and what happens after they report it, Boyce said.
By JOSH THALL