BENTON TOWNSHIP — You spend decades building a life, raising a family, creating a home where you have dignity and independence.

But it can all be taken away in a manner of minut es.

That’s what faces many of Michigan’s senior citizens, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel, who brought her Elder Abuse Task Force listening tour to Berrien County Monday. It was their third stop.

Nessel said she has seen petitions for guardianships for older residents decided in less time, with less testimony or deliberation, that a traffic ticket.

Nessel, a former prosecutor, said that 73,000 Michigan residents a year are victims of elder abuse, which can involve physical or emotional harm, neglect and exploitation of finances or property.

The state will soon have 2 million residents who are 65 and older, so this is a problem that will affect everyone, the attorney general said.

The task force has more than 80 members from 50 organizations, including the Region IV Area Agency on Aging, representing Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

The task force’s motto is “No excuse for elder abuse.”

Nessel was joined by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein. The justice, who is blind, said he knows how a person “can be strong one day, and completely reliant the next.”

That happened to Bernstein, the veteran of 22 marathons and an Iron Man competition, while he was running around Central Park in New York City. A cyclist lost control of his bike and ran into Bernstein while traveling at 35 miles per hour. The collision put Bernstein in the hospital for 10 weeks.

During that time “you literally don’t have a life of your own,” and lose the ability to handle simple daily tasks or make decisions for yourself, he said.

That can happen to older people because of medical problems or other setbacks, Bernstein said. He called for helping seniors adapt to their new lives with as much respect as possible.

The tour is being held to gather input from older residents and others as solutions are proposed, Nessel said.

A resident named Linda shared her own experience. A series of strokes, and a subsequent operation, took away her vision. She also has hearing loss. Because she sometimes did not hear what someone said, or misread an appointment on her calendar, it was assumed she had dementia, which she said was not the case.

When she went to court for the guardianship case, there was no one to help her to the podium, and she said she felt “unimportant” and “disrespected.”

A conservator was appointed to manage her affairs, but failed to pay her bills on time, she said.

Linda suggested that members of the task force stay in a nursing home or other facility for the elderly “so you feel like one of us.”

She also volunteered to serve on the task force.

Linda Strohl, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Southwestern Michigan, also recommended that officials ride along with one of her drivers, or shadow someone with the Area Agency on Aging, saying the experience would be “educational.”

Strohl, who also is a member of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, said that the view of older residents must change from that of victim to empowerment.

Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski recommended that advocates for the elderly under guardianship keep track of when their property taxes are being paid. That is often the last thing that is paid when a senior gets in financial trouble, but they can lose their homes to foreclosure, he cautioned.

Taking action

The task force has announced several reforms it would like to see put in place.

One would be to require professional guardians to become certified, with training and professional standards. The task force also would like to limit the wards allowed per guardian. Nessel said some guardians have 500 clients.

Scott Teter, division chief for financial crimes in the attorney general’s office, said they are working with law enforcement to provide information and training on how to recognize and report suspected elder abuse, much as they did with domestic violence two decades ago.

The attorney general’s office is pushing for mandatory reporting by financial institutions on suspected fraud or exploitation. Teter said there has been a lot of resistance from banks and credit unions on this provision, but he insisted that they are the only ones in the system than can stop such crimes from occurring.

Once the senior citizen’s money is out the door, it’s too late, Teter said.

The AG’s office wants to require a full hearing for guardianships and conservatorships, with the ward present and medical testimony provided. Bernstein agreed that before a court decides that an elderly person can’t handle their own affairs, it should be investigated fully.

Teter called for guardianships that do not involve a family member to be reviewed after six months, and then every year after that. The arrangements are now reviewed after a year, and then every three years after that.

Legislative hearings are scheduled for later this year on these proposals, and Teter urged citizens and advocates for the elderly to attend and contact their legislators.

Bernstein said after the session that he believes that the proposals being made are “very doable’ and “simple common sense.”

“We’re not trying to change the world overnight,” he said. “We’re not going to make it perfect, but we can make it better.”

Information is at mi.gov/elderabuse. To report elder abuse, call 855-444-3911.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak