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Building Awareness

(Source: Jewish Home Family)

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. For those of us who are committed to the fight against elder abuse, it’s a day to wear our purple “elder abuse awareness” ribbons, to educate and, most importantly, to try and bring the topic of elder abuse to the forefront of people’s minds.  It is not an easy task.  Elder abuse is insidious, it takes place behind closed doors and it is not something that people think about or talk about.  But elder abuse is very real and it touches the lives of millions of older adult in this country, and around the world, every year.

My own journey into this work began around 2009.  At the time I was fairly new to the world of elder care and just getting to know my colleagues.  I met Dan Reingold, CEO of the Hebrew Home (now River Spring Health) and learned, for the first time, about the issue of elder abuse. Dan and his team have led, and continue to lead the way, in developing elder abuse shelters and working on elder abuse prevention. Dan is a passionate advocate and he told me that I had to think about opening a shelter at my organization in Ohio, that it was vital to the wellbeing of elders in our community.

I thought the idea was valid but there were so many other things on our plate.  Eventually, I agreed that we should have a conference call with some of my management team and both Dan and Joy Solomon, Director of the Hebrew’s Home Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention.  We spent close to two hours on that initial call and our team was enthusiastic about taking on this initiative.  I vividly remember thinking what a great thing this was for outreach and that we could “help people we don’t know.” The thought had not even fully formed when I realized we already knew victims of elder abuse, that we already had them within our walls.  I thought about one of the elders in our assisted living.  She had turned over her assets to her daughter to manage and, one day, the rent did not get paid for the following month.  She was baffled by this and distressed by her daughter failing to return her calls.  She asked us for help. When we worked with her to look at her accounts, which had been substantial, they were all empty.  And her daughter was nowhere to be found.

Since that moment, both in Ohio and with our shelter here in New Jersey, there has been no shortage of cases, stories that most of us would find nearly inconceivable.  We had a woman whose granddaughter moved in with her, was selling drugs from grandmother’s home and took away the grandmother’s walker and her phone and kept the grandmother a virtual prisoner. When a home care worker arrived, for a monthly visit, she found the woman in her bed with handprint bruises on her upper arms. The home care worker made an immediate referral and we were able to admit this woman to our shelter. She lived with us for some weeks and went on to live a safe and dignified life near one of her adult children, who had none nothing of the abuse that was occurring. I remember a man whose son brutalized him, grabbing him by the throat and throwing him against a wall when he was angry because his father did not give him the money he wanted.  The son left the house and the father, who could not walk, crawled across his lawn to the neighbor. The son was charged by the police and the father spent three months in our shelter.  He was so fearful that he would drag his trash can to the door every night so that he would hear the noise and awaken if someone came into his room.  He went on to live in supportive housing, safely and in peace.

Elder abuse can be physical.  It can be emotional, sexual and/or verbal as well as neglect.  And, in nearly every case, it is financial.  Often the perpetrator is a family member. After all, the definition of elder abuse is abuse at the hands of a trusted caregiver.  Elder abuse can happen to anyone, from any background, any socioeconomic level, any community, truly anyone.  If you don’t think so, find Mickey Rooney’s testimony in front of Congress some years ago.  A successful actor, fully cognitively intact, he was abused by his family and managed to come out the other side.  His words are both powerful and chilling.

How do we all play a role in fighting elder abuse? First, know that it exists. Second, be aware of changes taking place with elders in your life, whether they are family or just acquaintances. If you see something that concerns you, let someone know. If you are a professional who has interaction with older adults, make sure you to talk with the elder alone. Their voices need to be heard and they deserve that opportunity. If you suspect something, whatever your capacity with that elder, you can call Adult Protective Services, who do great work in our community.  And if you think the situation is urgent or life threatening, call the police.  Elders need all of our help and involvement. It will take all of us to be aware, to be involved and to care.  Let’s make purple ribbons and the need for a day to focus on elder abuse awareness a thing of the past.  Let’s work together to create a world in which elder abuse no longer exists.  Our elders cannot do it for themselves but we each can help to do it for them.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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