January 28, 2013

Elder abuse: 'Huge' and growing problem

As America's baby boomers age, far more seniors are being added to a vulnerable population. The number of victims is estimated at 2 million a year.

DAN SEWELL / The Associated Press

MASON, Ohio — She raised her hands to her snow-white hair in a gesture of bewilderment, then slowly lowered them to cover eyes filling with tears. The woman, in her 70s, is trying to explain how she wound up in a shelter that could well be where she spends the rest of her life.

Kim Bauer
click image to enlarge

Caregiver Kim Bauer navigates an elderly woman’s wheelchair at the Cedar Village retirement community in Mason, Ohio. The woman, who is in her 70s, was allegedly abused by a relative. Cases of elder abuse typically go undetected, experts say, because the abuse – often by family members – is not reported due to embarrassment or fear.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

An elderly woman watches "I Love Lucy" on a television inside her room at Cedar Village retirement community in Mason, Ohio. The Shalom Center, which is a part of the community, offers shelter, along with medical, psychological and legal help, to elderly abuse victims in this northern Cincinnati suburb. The center asked that this woman's identity be protected for this story because the close relatives who allegedly abused her don't know where she is.

The Associated Press


As many as 2 million older Americans are abused in various ways each year, experts estimate. The majority of cases are at the hands of relatives or other caregivers. Some of the forms, besides physical assault, that elder abuse can take:

Inappropriate use of drugs and physical restraints.

Treating the elderly person as if he or she were a small child.

Failure to provide sufficient food, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medication, comfort or safety.

Isolating the person from friends, family, other social activities.

Deserting the person.

Misusing the person’s funds, property and assets.

Source: New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence

While the woman was living with a close family member, officials at the Shalom Center said, her money was being drained away by people overcharging for her grocery shopping, while her body and spirit were sapped by physical neglect and emotional torment.

She said she was usually ordered to "go to bed," where she lay in a dark room, upset, unable to sleep.

"She just yelled at me all the time. Screamed at me, cussed me out," the woman said of a family member. "I don't know what happened. She just got tired of me, I guess."

The Shalom Center offers shelter, along with medical, psychological and legal help, to elderly abuse victims in this northern Cincinnati suburb. It is among a handful in the country that provide sanctuary from such treatment, a problem experts say is growing along with the age of the nation's population.

The number of Americans 65 and over is projected to nearly double by 2030 because of the 74 million baby boomers born from 1946 to 1964, and the number of people 85 and over is increasing at an even faster rate.

The number of seniors being abused, exploited or neglected every year is often estimated at about 2 million, judging by available statistics and surveys, but experts say the number could be much higher. Some research indicates that 1 in 10 seniors have suffered some form of abuse at least once.

"It's a huge issue, and it's just going to get bigger," said Sharon Merriman-Nai, project director of the Clearinghouse on Abuse and Neglect of the Elderly, based at the University of Delaware.

Recognition of and mechanisms for dealing with elder abuse are many years behind the strides that have been made in child abuse awareness and protection, experts say.

Getting comprehensive numbers of the abused is complicated, experts say, because the vast majority of cases go unreported out of embarrassment, fear of being cut off from family -- most abuse is at the hands of relatives -- or confusion about what has happened.

Abuse sometimes comes to light only by chance. County-level adult protective services caseworkers can get anonymous tips. In one recent Ohio case, a hairstylist noticed that her elderly client was wincing in pain and got her to acknowledge she had been hit in the ribs by a relative. Another Shalom Center patient was referred by sheriff's detectives who said that the man's son beat him.

"Are these older people going to be allowed to live their lives the way they deserve to?" said Carol Silver Elliott, CEO of the Cedar Village retirement community, of which the Shalom Center is a part. "We really are not addressing it as a society the way we should."

The Obama administration has said it has increased its focus on protecting American seniors by establishing a national resource center and a consumer protection office, among other steps. But needs are growing at a time when government spending on social services is being cut or not keeping up with demand.

In Ohio, slowly recovering from the recession, budgets have been slashed in such areas as staffs that investigate elderly abuse cases.

Staff at the Job and Family Services agency in Hamilton County in Cincinnati is about half the size it was in 2009, spokesman Brian Gregg said. Even as national statistics indicate elder abuse is increasing, the number of elder abuse cases the agency can probe is lower, down from 574 cases in 2009 to 477 last year, he said.

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