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Vulnerable among us need your help

As winter approaches, we ask all caring community members -- neighbors, friends, family, caregivers, letter carriers, grocery checkers, utility workers -- to keep an eye out for Alaska's adults who cannot stand up for themselves.

Alaska has the fastest growing older population in the country, and Alaska's Adult Protective Services office is seeing a corresponding rise in the number of vulnerable adults who suffer financial exploitation, neglect or abuse.

Adult Protective Services protects the independence, dignity and well-being of Alaska adults, age 18 and older, who are vulnerable to abuse and neglect. This might be someone who is frail and elderly, a young person with a disability, or someone who has dementia or another health condition.

Reports to the office have risen almost 200 percent in the past five years, yet researchers estimate only one in five cases is reported.

Alaska is now better able to combat fraud, neglect and abuse, using new laws that state leaders passed earlier this year to give enforcement agencies more teeth, but we still rely on reports from the community.

Is someone outdoors but not dressed for the cold? Call 911.

Is there a utility shut-off notice on a vulnerable adult's door? Do you think someone may be taking his or her money, or harming him or her? Call Adult Protective Services, 1-800-478-9996.

The most common cases we see are financial abuse by a scammer, caregiver or relative, and self-neglect.

Are you suspicious of a "new friend" who has wormed his or her way into your occasionally disoriented father's or mother's life? Does the friend seem to be isolating your parent and spending a lot of money?

With new legal tools, we can stop a scammer from draining a bank account and help vulnerable people keep their assets and ties to their family.

Convincing someone to accept help in a self-neglect case can be trickier.

People who are used to being self-reliant are often reluctant to ask for help. They may also be afraid that an agency will try to force them to give up living independently. This is not the case.

Our services are voluntary. As long as someone is capable of making a clear decision, Alaska law protects his or her right to choose independence over safety. If your elderly but mentally competent parent insists on living alone in a remote cabin, or is spending your inheritance on bingo, cigarettes and donations to causes that you don't agree with, that's his or her prerogative.

But if someone is having a hard time shopping or maintaining good hygiene from a lack of money or mobility, we can connect him or her with resources to improve well-being and maintain independence.

Someone might be experiencing abuse if you notice signs such as excessive fear, tearfulness and confusion; bruising; soiled clothing or linens; an unexplained change in behavior, or health decline.

To report potential harm, call 1-800-478-9996 (in-state only), email hss.aps@alaska.gov or fax 907-269-3648. You don't have to be sure; we will investigate. Reporting is easy, confidential, and can change someone's life for the better, forever.

Adult Protective Services is holding a resource fair from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 21, in Anchorage's BP Energy Center, 1014 Energy Court. There will be a video showing and panel discussion from noon-2 p.m. For a map, visit www.hss.state.ak.us/dsds/aps.htm (or do a Web search on Alaska Adult Protective Services.) If you can't attend but would like more information, email hss.aps@alaska.gov or fax 907-269-3648 and we'll be happy to send you materials or to arrange a speaker.

Remember -- see something, say something.

Brenda Mahlatini is the program manager for Adult Protective Services, Division of Senior & Disabilities Services, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.



By BRENDA MAHLATINI