The elderly deserve a break. After working for a lifetime, raising children and sometimes even grandchildren, and going through a myriad of challenging experiences, many senior citizens want no more than a chance to relax and do the things they've always wanted to do, at a leisurely pace. Retirement is a dream that has helped sustain them through the difficult times they went through earlier in life.

Unfortunately, the golden years provide no rest for many weary seniors. Health problems often reduce their capacity to manage their personal affairs competently. Some suffer from a diminished ability to understand their surroundings. The need for assistance forces many to seek help from others who are often unfamiliar and in some cases unwanted. Advancing technology can make seniors uncomfortable and expose them to disreputable practices from con artists and other scams. What sounds like unfounded paranoia to younger people makes perfect sense to many seniors, who are justifiably fearful that someone will take advantage of them.

Seniors and technology
For seniors who have embraced it, the Internet has brought about a revolution in the way they interact. Homebound seniors who once had to rely mostly on telephones to keep in touch with distant friends and family members now can communicate instantly across the world.

However, technology has also brought new ways to try to take advantage of unsuspecting seniors. Identity thieves can pose as telemarketers or even trusted business contacts, asking seemingly innocuous questions that are designed to have seniors disclose critical personal information. Thieves can also create authentic-looking e-mail messages that entice seniors to provide security information, such as a mother's maiden name or a password, that can then be used fraudulently to access a financial account. Although the most popular e-mail providers, including Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), see their e-mail systems as a potential source of substantial revenue and therefore continue to make improvements to their filtering systems, many fraudulent messages still make it through such filters. Many seniors, who have nostalgic memories of simpler times in which they knew everyone with whom they did business, find it difficult to maintain a suspicious attitude, yet any time they drop their guard, an opportunity for abuse arises.

Outside professionals and elder abuse
In the past, seniors facing chronic medical conditions had few options; when their health declined to a point at which they could no longer remain at home, they usually had to go to a full-service nursing home. Nowadays, those who require assistance with certain tasks can hire professionals to visit them at home on an occasional or regular basis. For those with more serious health conditions, having such professionals available 24 hours a day is an option. In addition, senior-living communities and assisted-living facilities provide many seniors with a more comfortable transition away from fully independent living.

The downside is that seniors have more people going in and out of their homes than ever before. If any of these visitors are inclined to steal property or information from seniors, they will have ample opportunities to do so. Many seniors lack the mobility and capacity to monitor their visitors' activities at all times, so if a senior later finds something missing, identifying the culprit can be a challenge, especially if a health service sends different professionals from day to day. Even though most home health-care providers do their best to perform background checks on their employees and are bonded against such actions, it is usually hard to back up accusations with enough evidence to pinpoint the source of the problem.

In addition to health-worker scams, some con artists portray themselves as home-improvement or maintenance workers. These people may simply charge exorbitant fees for shoddy work. Or they may also take the opportunity to gain access to a senior's home and take what they want.

Family members and abuse
When it comes to financial abuse, seniors have to be wary even of their own children and other family members. Appallingly, there are many cases in which adult children have looted a parent's home, either for financial gain or to secure objects with sentimental value. Because many seniors are unable to accept the idea that a child could do this to them, convincing them that they are being abused at all can be exceptionally difficult.

As a friend or family member, you can help seniors by providing an objective look at what happens in their lives. If an elderly person complains of missing possessions or money, you can help try to find the missing objects. You can also encourage the senior to store valuables in a secure location, such as a safe-deposit box, and take an inventory of items that remain at home. Just providing a sounding board to listen to an elderly person's comments and complaints can be extremely helpful.

Elder abuse is an increasing problem among today's aging population. As parents and grandparents lose their capacity to protect themselves, you must take on the responsibility to care for their well-being against the challenges of those who would take advantage of them for personal gain.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has seen firsthand some tragic stories of elder abuse. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy keeps you covered.