Although elder abuse was first recognized in the 1970s as a problem in the United States, it is disappointing to see that it is still not a well-know public health issue, especially considering the magnitude of the problem. According to this report prepared for Congress, during 1996 there were 500,000 incidents of elder abuse in the United States. However, this same report asserts that elder abuse claims were vastly underreported, with only 16% of the incidents being reported to law enforcement agencies during the same time period. According to one AARP advisor “people over age 60 make up only one-eighth of the U.S. population, yet they constitute one of every three scam victims.”
In an effort to revise this worldwide attitude, in 2006 the United Nations declared June 15th to be World Elder Abuse Awareness day. The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse has suggested wearing purple as a sign of support to prevent the problem of elder abuse. In Los Angeles, celebrities including Ed Asner, Art Linkletter, Michael Reagan, Los Angeles Police Department Police Chief William Bratton, have contributed to the film Saving our Parents which was released in April 2008.
Elder abuse is generally considered to include any knowing intentional or negligent act that results in harm to a vulnerable adult. Such harm can include but is not limited to emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect or abandonment. Elder abuse is frequently attributed to care givers but in my estimation it is often more common within families. I have encountered numerous situations where family members attempt to misappropriate a senior’s assets for their own benefit in disregard for the senior who is no longer able to raise an adequate defense.
Another commonly recognized form of elder abuse is known as self-abuse. The typical self-abuse situation involves a senior who is no longer capable of managing his or her daily needs and, without involved family or support, the senior tolerates living in dangerous conditions. In the course of my practice, I have encountered numerous elderly individuals living in squalor simply because they were no longer able to understand their conditions or manage their affairs. Sometimes the senior’s deficiencies are physical (failing eyesight, lack of mobility), sometimes the limitations are mental (dementia, Alzheimer’s disease) and sometimes the deficiencies causing self-neglect are manifold.
So what can you do to help prevent elder abuse? I am a big fan of old fashion values: stay close to your loved ones, friends or neighbors who may vulnerable. It is always a good idea to be wary of any new person or organization who becomes involved in an elder’s life. Ask questions and speak up if you have concerns. If the concerns appear serious, call your local law enforcement agency. In Los Angeles County, we are also lucky enough to have a 24 hour Elder Abuse Hotline, (telephone (877) 4-R-SENIORS), which allows you to make confidential reports of suspected elder abuse. If the situation is not resolved to your satisfaction, it may also be useful to consider legal assistance including possibly a conservatorship for the senior in need.