Carol Silver Elliott

Stepping Up

How often do we see a situation in which we could make a difference . . . and we don’t? We are reluctant to intervene, we don’t want to create a problem for someone else, we might end up owning the problem, the list goes on. In so many instances, we are like spectators at the scene, keeping ourselves distant and, while we are curious, making certain that we don’t get involved.

In no way is this a judgment of what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do.  After all, we each have a right to choose and to believe we have legitimate reasons to make the choices we do.  That is all understood.  But when we come to a situation in which someone who cannot fight for themselves is being abused or injured or is in danger, what is our responsibility?

Older adults are victims of abuse at greater and greater rates every year.  Estimates are that, in the United States alone, there are more than 2-1/2 million victims annually.  2-1/2 million . . . that is a very large number.  And, yet, only a tiny fraction of those victims are identified and an even smaller fraction receive the help they need to break out of that pattern of abuse.

By its very definition, elder abuse is abuse at the hands of a trusted caregiver.  As an organization that’s worked with elder abuse victims for a decade, our experience has been that the trusted caregiver is most frequently a loved one, often an adult child or grandchild. And the abuse is insidious and behind closed doors—but it is not invisible.  The doctor might wonder why this formerly compliant patient no longer was showing up for appointments . . . or just not notice.  The pharmacist might question why regular prescription refills are not picked up. The Emergency Room physician might look askance at a bruise or injury but accept the adult child’s story that “She/he is so clumsy.”  The person who lives next door might notice that they don’t see their elderly neighbor anymore, since her grandson moved in or the people who sat with the elder at worship services might wonder where she/he went, but hesitate to ask.

A perfect example of this is a woman who called our shelter phone line recently and told us that one of her family members was being abused by the family member’s daughter.  She reported that the elder was kept in a bedroom, denied any socialization and often physically abused by the daughter.  The strong recommendation that this caller reach out for help was met with resistance.  Calling Adult Protective Services was not an answer because the “family would know it was me and that would make things worse.” Calling the police had the same response.  Offering the elder another place to live, perhaps at the caller’s home short term while looking for other housing was something that she “had spent my whole life trying to avoid.”

Getting help for a victim of abuse does not mean that we have to jump into the fray and try and solve the problem.  There are professional resources for that and avenues that can be pursued.  But taking no action, standing back instead of speaking up, pretending that it does not exist, is not the answer.  Abused elders, in many cases, cannot fight for themselves. Like other innocent victims of abuse, from children to animals, it is our obligation to say something, our obligation to step forward.  What that step forward looks like is varied.  It can be a tiny step, a question asked, a phone call made.  But looking the other way? As citizens of the world, as responsible human beings with ethics and morals, we cannot and must not be silent.

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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