For Sacramento County's Adult Protective Services staff, the busiest time of year is drawing near.
"We don't tend to get families' calls during the holidays," said program manager Elizabeth Foster-Ward. "Our biggest time is right afterward."
It's a sad twist on holiday tradition, but one that experts on aging see every year: Family members who return home to visit their elderly loved ones during the holiday season can be shocked at the reality of how their relatives' lives have deteriorated during the past year.
Maybe the bills aren't paid, lying in unopened stacks around the house.
"Some could be warning notices that utilities are going to be shut off," said Foster-Ward. "There could be unpaid taxes, bills they lose track of because they don't have to be paid every month.
"Especially if they grew up in the Depression, elderly people can hoard cash. Visiting relatives will see lots of cash lying around. They'll hide a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred dollars there to pay bills, and then they'll forget where they hid it."
Or maybe the elderly relatives' house, normally immaculate, is cluttered and untidy, the refrigerator filled with expired food.
"They're getting older," said Foster-Ward. "They're tired. They won't say they need someone to come in and help, because to them that's a waste of money."
According to the California Department of Justice, some 200,000 state residents are the victims of elder abuse every year.
On top of that, however, advocates for the elderly say that depression and encroaching dementia frequently lead to older adults' self-neglect: not eating, not taking their medications properly, and isolating themselves.
But there can be other reasons, as well. For example, said Foster-Ward, older people who are having trouble driving or who have lost their licenses can't make it to the grocery store as regularly as they used to, so their normally well-stocked pantries will have dwindled.
"Sometimes, families realize that the relative here who was supposed to be taking care of their older loved one really wasn't doing that, or maybe they were abusing them financially," she said. "They never really checked on them much."
What can families do to help?
"The family has to come together and make a plan," said Foster-Ward.
First, talk about the situation with the older adults in question, advocates suggest. Offer practical ways to help.
"I've noticed that responsible adults with elderly relatives will set up online banking for them and then pay their bills from another state," said Foster-Ward.
"The other thing is, they can volunteer to be their elderly relatives' emergency contact person. When my in-laws were elderly, we told the telephone company and the electric company that if they got behind on their bill to call us for those essential things."
APS specialists also suggest reminding older adults that it's not impolite to hang up on unknown phone callers who ask for personal information, such as credit card numbers, whether at the holidays or year-round.