The abuse of elders is among the fastest-growing crimes in our nation.

Only recognized less than 30 years ago in congressional hearings, it remains a well-hidden disgrace in our communities.

Still not well-defined, it can encompass a wide range of destructive behaviors against our older populations from direct abuse to neglect, all of which adversely affect its victims’ health and welfare.

In 2006, an estimated 5 million Americans 65 and older were abused. Each year, an estimated 14,000 elderly Mainers suffer abuse, and 85 percent of cases go unreported, according to a letter to the editor of the Kennebec Journal on June 15, Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Older persons throughout the state are being physically, mentally, sexually and/or financially abused, says the author of the letter, Muriel Scott, president and CEO of Spectrum Generations, the Central Maine Area Agency on Aging.

The perpetrators of the abuse, according to Scott, are usually family members or caregivers, who too often are far below the radar of suspicion.

Maine, the country’s oldest state in median age and second-most rural state, has an elder-abuse rate considered to be above the national average, according to studies by the Office of Elder Services in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Studies dating back to 2002 have revealed that Maine’s elderly suicide rate is among the highest in the U.S., the Office of Elder Services has found, and of the estimated 14,000 victims, the vast majority are unknown to the health and welfare systems. For every reported incident of neglect or abuse, up to 14 may go unreported, Maine Legal Services for the Elderly concluded in 2001.

It is abundantly clear that increased funding for programs such as Adult Protective Services is vital to combating elder abuse in Maine.

Ongoing education directed at the general public, health care personnel, policymakers and older adults themselves about the impact that elder abuse has on our older citizens is equally important.

Recommendations of the 2006 Blaine House Conference on Aging Regional Forum included making elder abuse a greater part of public discussions.

There should be better enforcement of the laws and adequate punishment for violations, as well as closer monitoring of long-term care patients’ access to their “bill of rights” and the establishment of an anonymous caregivers hotline to self-report abuse.

Emergency shelters for victimized older people should be made more available and accessible. To facilitate the reporting of elder abuse, financial institutions need exemptions from confidentiality. As well, more long-term caregivers should undergo abuse screening and employee background checks.

Perhaps the most difficult task toward ending the abuse of older people is overcoming the many associated stigmas, such as the shame and guilt many elders feel, largely because we live in such a youth-oriented culture. Human rights belong to everyone, regardless of age, state of mind and/or physical health and condition.

We all need to get beyond the “denial factor” and face the severity of this worldwide problem. Few of us are trained to really know what elder abuse is, what it feels like, who it affects.

Elder abuse knows no boundaries; it affects women and men of all cultural, ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, regardless of mental and physical functioning.

What makes these terrible situations more pernicious is that many older adults tolerate the abuse because they fear losing contact with a child or spouse, for example.

Victims often downplay the seriousness of the abuse because they fear being institutionalized or losing their living arrangements. There is also the common belief that these are “family matters,” and very often the abused blame themselves and are afraid of causing trouble for their abuser.

In “They Suffer in Silence,” a 2006 commentary appearing in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, Leigh Martinez White wrote, “Chronic underfunding of state elder abuse programs has led to an inconsistent patchwork of statutes that vary by state.”

Martinez White continues, “State and community agencies are struggling to care for the elderly victims who are reported to them each year. It may be up to the federal government to pass legislation that will effectively coordinate and adequately fund their effort.”

Additionally, versions of the Elder Justice Act have been introduced in Congress since 2002, but, even with bipartisan support, none has passed to date.

That is why it is important that Americans in general and Mainers in particular grasp the necessity of supporting grass-roots elder-abuse prevention efforts, and for our politicians and policymakers to listen to the stories that older victims tell us when we weigh outreach strategies and campaigns.

Maine law states that certain people are required to report the suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult believed to be incapacitated or dependent, with a fine of $500 for noncompliance.

But is that enough when there are still so many barriers to shedding light on this hidden crisis?

The answer is no.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]