Friday June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s a day when we work to get the larger community to focus on issues of elder abuse, to be not just aware of the problem but also to be tuned in to recognizing signs of abuse when they see it. It’s a day when we continue our efforts to have our public officials take a strong stand, a stand that says elder abuse is unacceptable in our society.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Of course we are all opposed to any kind of abuse, whether it is child abuse or abuse of animals. Yet elder abuse tends to be something that people don’t even realize exists, much less the magnitude of the problem.
Estimates are that there are between 3-1/2 and 5 million victims of elder abuse in this country every year. Elder abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or verbal. It includes neglect and it also, importantly, includes financial exploitation. Yet many of these cases go undiscovered and unreported. There are a number of reasons this happens. Often the perpetrator of the abuse is a family member, an adult child or grandchild. A victim may be too ashamed to acknowledge that this person that they raised, that they care about, is abusing them. Some victims are unwilling to leave the abusive situation because it is taking place in their home and they feel trapped and unable to leave.
Even more troubling is that many opportunities to identify and address an abusive situation are lost. The caregiver/family member/abuser begins by exercising control over the individual and their environment. If the victim receives medical care, the abuser is most often there to answer the questions. The same applies in other situations where a professional might intervene—everything from the bank to the attorney’s office. Compounding that is the fact that far too many people think that anyone over the age of 80 is certain to have some cognitive impairment. That is just not the case but that assumption prevents many elder victims from having the chance to speak for themselves.
Elder abuse, like other forms of abuse, knows no boundaries. It can happen to someone regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic status, ethnic background, religion and all the rest. We have all heard about cases of well-known and successful people who became victims, including former child star Mickey Rooney and socialite Brooke Astor.
What can you do to make a difference? The first is to understand that elder abuse is real and that it is a real problem in our society. The second is to open your eyes, and the eyes of others, for the red flags of elder abuse. Perhaps you saw an older adult at your house of worship every week. Suddenly they are not there or they look or act very different. Where they were once well groomed, they no longer are or they are suddenly not as conversational as they once were. Maybe you see bruises or injuries in someone you know and when you inquire, the explanation is either not forthcoming or comes from the caregiver. If an older adult is suddenly isolated, that may be a sign. If they are not getting proper medication, care or nutrition, that too can be a sign.
There is help, there are options. In some communities, there are elder abuse shelters and you can find that list on the SPRING Alliance website, http://www.springalliance.org/. The SPRING Alliance is a collective of shelters around the country who work together on best practices and building awareness. Adult Protective Services in the community is everyone’s first line of defense and in an emergent situation, the police are always the first choice.
Our elder victims of abuse often cannot speak for themselves. They need us to do that for them. That is not just our commitment, it is our duty and it, without any question, the right thing to do. Saying something can save a life and allow an older adult to live out their years in dignity and safety. Isn’t that what everyone deserves?