WINTERVILLE, Ga. -- Donna Tower's uncle told his family that someone was stealing his money, but the family didn't believe him at first because he has Alzheimer's.
In the end, the family learned that he was telling the truth - that the administrator of an Athens area nursing home was taking his money, and his brother's, but no one would believe him.
"(She) had been taking their checks and we didn't realize it," Tower said. "My uncle with Alzheimer's had said someone was stealing his money all along, but we just brushed it off because we thought it was just in his mind."
Sherrye Dianne Huff, former administrator of the Winterville Retirement Center, was arrested Monday on five felony charges - three counts of theft and two counts of exploiting an elderly or disabled person - and one count of misdemeanor theft for stealing from the Alzheimer's patient.
The investigator, Winterville police Sgt. Jimmy Fulcher, discovered while looking into the theft case that elder abuse is more widespread than people realize.
He arrested another Winterville Retirement Center employee on charges she punched another Alzheimer's patient in the face for taking some butter off a food cart in the facility's dining hall.
The 82-year-old resident died a few weeks later and authorities are investigating to see if her death was related to the assault.
Soon after, police say another employee of the Winterville Retirement Center stole drugs that had been prescribed for the patient who died, and police later found out the administrator was stealing money from other residents.
The three cases of abuse and financial exploitation happened in less than three months.
"More than likely, (elder abuse) it's more widespread than we know," said Fulcher, who last week launched a fourth investigation into the possible theft of money from another Winterville Retirement Center resident.
The first case Fulcher investigated at Winterville Retirement Center happened Feb. 22, when employee Cynthia Ann Barrow punched the Alzheimer's patient, then told police that she only pushed the woman, who then slipped.
The victim's head struck the food cart and the floor, and she was taken to the hospital with a knot on the back of her head the size of an egg, according to Fulcher.
"Most times when a patient reports something it's hard to prove it because when they have Alzheimer's, they will sometimes say something happened to them when it hasn't happened," he said. "In this (assault) case I consider myself extremely lucky as far as getting cooperation" from other employees who witnessed the assault.
Barrow could be charged with homicide if the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determines the assault caused the nursing home resident's death.
"Elder abuse is one of the most unrecognized and under-reported crimes," said Ravae Graham, a deputy director with the state Department of Human Services. "Many abuse victims don't realize it, don't know what to do about it, or are too afraid to report their abuse or neglect."
The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that for each documented case of neglect or abuse, five cases go unreported.
Though people place trust in professionals to take care of their loved ones, relatives need to look for signs of abuse, according to an Athens woman, who took her mother out of an area nursing home after only a month when she discovered employees weren't giving her mother the medication she needed.
"When you bring your parent to a nursing home, you think they should be getting the best care possible," said the woman, who asked to not be identified. "Prisoners get better care than people in nursing homes."
After the woman took her 86-year-old mother out of the nursing home to live with her, she discovered a large bed sore because nursing home employees let the dementia patient sit in the same position in a wheelchair for hours.
"It takes a special kind of person to work in a nursing home because they have to deal with people who can become very combative when they don't want to be bathed or take their medicine," she said. "That can become very frustrating, but that's no excuse to abuse or neglect anyone because that's their job and they knew what they were getting into."
Anyone who is looking to place a loved one in a nursing home should do some research to see the facility's track record, experts said.