Carol Silver Elliott

Resolved: A Safer New Year

Our elders will tell you that they remember when people didn’t say the word “cancer” out loud; rather they would either be silent or, eventually, mention the “c” word.  The same thing happened in more recent years with HIV and continues to happen, far too often, with mental health issues.  But one topic frequently doesn’t get named, even with a “code.”  It gets ignored or swept under the rug.  It gets justified or excused.  And it is time, long past time, to take this issue out of secrecy and (real or feigned) ignorance and recognize it for the epidemic it is and the damage it does every day.

The issue?  Elder abuse.  Elder abuse affects more than 3 million Americans every year and more people around the globe.  The term elder abuse refers to abuse that happens at the hands of a trusted caregiver. That can be a family member as well as someone who is a paid or unpaid caregiver in the home, community or residential setting.

Often when we talk about elder abuse, the response is “How could anyone . . .” but the truth is that children, animals, spouses are abused—so why not older adults? Elder abuse takes the form of all other types of abuse.  It can be physical, emotional, verbal or sexual.  It can be neglect.  And it will almost always include an element (large or small) of financial exploitation.

Elder abuse crosses all socioeconomic lines, it crosses all ethnic and religious lines, it happens in every community.  The abuser isolates the victim and their world becomes a smaller and smaller place. They control and demand and do damage that they try to keep unseen.

But is it truly unseen?  So many clues exist and there are so many opportunities that all of us have to see something . . . and say something.  Has your elderly neighbor stopped coming out of his/her house?  Have you seen an elder you know and found them different—disheveled, quiet, never alone? Have you seen bruises? Have their patterns changed, no longer going to church or synagogue, no longer turning up at the grocery or the drugstore or the bank?  Have you found that your attempts to make contact have been thwarted by someone who is now in the elder’s home?  None of these clues are particularly subtle but they are also easy for us to brush off or ignore or excuse.

When we train people in our community to be more aware, we often see a “light bulb” go on as they think about people that they know. When we train professionals, we see the same.  The medical professional who speaks only to the adult child and not to the older adult patient.  The attorney who believes that the family member with the elder is fully able to express the elder’s wishes and doesn’t engage the elder in the conversation.  The first responders who accept at face value that someone’s injuries are a result of “being so clumsy” and not the work of an abuser.  In each of these instances, the truth may remain hidden, not because of ill intentions but because we just don’t think to look, to ask, to question.

Awareness is the most vital step that any of us can take.  Observe and ask.  And if you see something that concerns you, take action.  If the circumstances look urgent or emergent, all the police.  If you are not sure but something doesn’t feel right, call Adult Protective Services in your County.  They are trained to investigate and they are empowered to take action.

Is there hope?  In some communities around the country, including at the Jewish Home Family in Bergen County, New Jersey, elder abuse shelters exist. The Jewish Home’s Senior Haven offers victims of elder abuse a safe place to stay for 90 to 120 days, to separate from their abuser, to heal and to prepare for discharge to the safest and least restrictive alternative.

Making 2023 safer for older adults if everyone’s responsibility.  Our older adults may not have the opportunity to help themselves, to save themselves but each of us can make a difference.

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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