Nessel backs efforts to protect seniors

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

ESCANABA — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was in Escanaba Tuesday to open Senior Day at the Upper Peninsula State Fair, introduce her office’s elder-specific infinitives, and answer questions from local media.

Nessel’s visit to the fair came just one day after the attorney general announced her plans to open an office in Marquette to serve Upper Peninsula residents. The U.P. has not had a local AG office in decades.

“I went to every county in the U.P. during the course of the campaign last year, and I was really sort of horrified that anybody up here would have to drive 10, 12, 14 hours in order to see anybody from the AG’s office,” said Nessel. “And I thought to myself how wrong that was and that you guys pay your taxes just like anybody else, you deserve to be able to go and directly meet with somebody from the AG’s office when you have a problem, and you deserve to have a voice in your state government.”

According to Nessel, seniors make up 20 percent of the population of all but three Upper Peninsula counties and current trends point to there being 2 million seniors in the state by the year 2030. Currently, around 73,000 seniors are victims of elder abuse at the hands of caretakers annually, and with that in mind, the AG’s office has made the protection of seniors a priority through the Elder Abuse Task Force.

“We had task forces that worked on this in the 90s and again in the 2000s and we sure came up with a lot of problems, but not many solutions, and so we decided to do something a little different this time,” said Nessel.

According to Nessel, the Elder Abuse Task Force formed earlier this year in a joint effort between the AG’s office and the Michigan Supreme Court is action-oriented.

“I really believe that in the first year of this task force we’ll have accomplished more in terms of protecting seniors in this state than we have in the last 30 or 40 years combined,” said Nessel.

The AG’s office is using the task force to tackle issues like probate court reform and establishing statutory rights of family members and rules related to guardianship.

Some of the task force’s goals include making sure all professional guardians are bonded, certified, and have received a minimum level of training. Guardians would also have a limit to the number of wards in their care, preventing a single guardian from having the financial and healthcare decision making power for hundreds of seniors or other vulnerable adults.

The task force is also pushing for full hearings with medical testimony for emergency guardianship petitions, where wards may be present, and for changes to the process by which senior wards can be removed from their home by a legal guardian.

“There is no more significant thing in life to be removed from your home and put in a nursing home and if that’s going to happen it ought to be a last resort,” said Nessel.

Rights of senior’s family members are also a serious concern for the task force. Chief among those concerns is visitation rights.

“You know, sometimes a person just isn’t in a position to be able to have guardianship over their mom or their dad, but does that mean that they never should get to see them again in life? We don’t do that with children, right? Even if you don’t get custody of a child that doesn’t mean you can’t ever visit your child and spend time with them, and we think it should be the same thing with seniors and other vulnerable adults,” said Nessel.

More than 50 senior advocacy groups and a bipartisan coalition of legislators from both the state house and senate are working with the task force. According to Nessel, legislation on many of the task force’s concerns will be introduced in September.

In addition to the task force, the AG’s office has charged 10 individuals in cases of cases of elder abuse, including one individual who was employed by Bishop Noa in Escanaba. Following her Senior Day remarks, Nessel told the Daily Press she was unsure of the current status of that particular case, but that cases of abuse and neglect at nursing homes can be tricky.

“Those are tough cases because on one hand … I’m very concerned about a lot of these facilities that I think are understaffed and underpaid, and so I want to be mindful of that, but at the end of the day, we have to do everything we can to protect seniors. And what that means is when you have someone that is either neglecting or abusing someone that is a vulnerable adult, they have to be held to a standard where a person is not injured because of their conduct. We have to be sure we’re protecting seniors. That’s the bottom line,” she said.

Because the AG’s office also handles consumer protection complaints, Nessel took her time in the Activities Tent to inform seniors of ways to protect themselves against phone scams. In addition to never giving out personally identifiable information — such as social security numbers — and not answering calls from unknown numbers, Nessel suggested seniors install apps on their phones to block spam calls.