Arlington task force helps elders avoid abuse

It’s the kind of story Rebecca Wolfe has heard many times in her role with the Arlington Police Department.

A senior citizen gets a phone call from a person saying a family member is in trouble in a foreign country and needs help. The senior, concerned about their loved one, will often send money, not realizing that the person calling is a con artist.

“Every day, we have reports from people that they’re being scammed or taken advantage of financially,” said Wolfe, a mental health clinician who works full time for the town’s police force. “Some of the scams, you would think people would figure out quickly are not legitimate, but people are very trusting, with the senior population even more so.”


That’s why Wolfe, along with numerous other town officials and community members, have joined a coalition that will conduct outreach and education efforts to protect senior citizens from fraudulent schemes, and emotional and physical abuse.

The town’s Elder Abuse Task Force is holding its first event, a forum on how to avoid financial scams, on June 24 at 11 a.m. in Town Hall, 730 Massachusetts Ave. It will open with an improvisational group acting out common swindles, followed by a panel of officials presenting information and answering questions from the audience.

Elder abuse is on the rise throughout the state, according to Martina Jackson, communications and outreach director at the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. In fiscal year 2013, the office logged 21,000 reports of elder abuse, while 21,707 reports have been filed this fiscal year with another month to go; officials expect the total to reach 23,000 by July 1.

Jackson said those numbers are on the rise for two reasons: first, an exploding senior population as baby boomers hit retirement age; and second, greater awareness of what constitutes elder abuse. Jackson said her agency works with financial institutions and police departments, and broadcasts information about abuse on cable television.


“All of that expands awareness,” Jackson said.

As for Arlington, 55 scams have been recorded by police this year, with 19 involving an older resident. The 2010 census found that the town had 9,400 residents over the age of 60, said the Council on Aging’s executive director, Susan Carp, out of its total population of 42,800 at the time.

The Arlington task force was the brainchild of Betsey Crimmins, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services who has worked with Arlington elders for many years.

“The idea of the task force comes from picking a town and creating a communitywide response to issues as a preventative measure,” said Crimmins. “Instead of having them respond to a crisis . . . we try to give people information about the issue to prevent the problems from happening in the first place.”

Crimmins regularly meets with the Council on Aging staff, and last winter they conceived of the idea for the task force. The town agency also has obtained a “service incentive grant’’ from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, which has helped it retain specialists with specific skills, such as a geriatrics nurse, a South Asian social worker to help tap into a different cultural community, and a sign-language interpreter.

The task force includes a range of advocates and officials, such as bank representatives, a financial planner, a lawyer, and someone from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Aging Project.


Crimmins said the task force has two primary goals: to reach out to people in the community so they know what to do if an elder person confides in them, and to educate elders so they can recognize and stop abuse if it happens to them. Types of abuse facing seniors could include financial or emotional exploitation by adult children or grandchildren, as well as self- neglect, officials said.

“If someone’s sitting in the forum, they could think, ‘I know that’s happening to my sister, or to Mr. Jones across the hall from me,’ ” said Crimmins.

Carp said education and outreach steps have already saved some Arlington residents from being victimized.

As an example, she noted that after Stop & Shop employees were trained to exercise caution before wiring money, they have prevented several scams from occurring.

Crimmins said the task force will spend the summer recording short public service announcements and reaching out to local faith communities to get them involved.

The other community that received a service incentive grant this year, Acton, used the money to set up a task force to educate residents and first responders about hoarding, said the town’s Council on Aging director, Sharon Mercurio.

Carp said her agency hopes to teach other communities about the issues being tackled by the coalition during the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging’s annual conference in October.

“It’s a broad problem, it goes undetected for a lot of different reasons, and this is a process of empowering,” she said.


Emily Cataneo can be reached at emilycataneo@gmail.com.