Agencies work to raise awareness of elder abuse
By Debbie Gardner
GREATER SPRINGFIELD When you hear the word "abuse," what act or situation comes to mind?
Drug abuse perhaps? Maybe child abuse? Certainly sexual abuse and its cruel partner, domestic violence.
But did the words "elder abuse" cross your mind? Probably not.
"It's the hidden victim, the silent victim," Sherry Bell, director of protective services for Highland Valley Elder Services, told Reminder Publications. "The numbers keep going up, which is really, really frightening. We've only hit the tip of the iceberg."
According to statistics provided by the Massachusetts Office of Elder Affairs, there were 14,909 reports and 4,423 confirmed cases of elder abuse in the state for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008. That reflects an increase of over 700 reports and 131 confirmed cases of elder abuse since June 30, 2007.
And, given the stresses placed on elders and families by the current economic downturn, Bell said the reports and cases of abuse are expected to continue to increase.
To report suspected Elder Abuse, call the Massachusetts 24-hour Elder Abuse hotline at 1-800-922-2275.
Reports are anonymous..
Reminder Publications contacted Bell and her counterparts at Greater Springfield Senior Services Karen Martin, community services director, and Ann Sabato, director of protective services in reference to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which took place June 15.
Sponsored by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), the 2009 international event took place in Paris, with community-based acknowledgements throughout the world.
The INPEA was founded in 1997 to raise awareness of this often hidden threat to the health and quality of life of the world's elders.
"What we're asking is everyone to ask just one person over 60 if they feel safe," said Bell. "We've also asked people to wear purple [on June 15] because that is the color the world organization has designated [to raise awareness]."
It's more than just bruises
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), elder abuse is similar to domestic violence and child abuse and includes acts of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as neglect. In addition, elders are often victims of financial abuse.
The WHO has conducted only a few studies of elder abuse, but in the countries where they have surveyed populations, four to six percent of the elderly report having experienced some form of abuse within their homes.
"Financial abuse is the one that happens most frequently," said Karen Martin, community services director for Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc. (GSSSI). "Family members coax an elder to give them money, or intercept checks or get their ATM card and PIN number [and access funds]."
In many cases, Martin said an underlying problem, such as substance abuse or gambling debts, drives abusers.
She said friends and family can spot signs of financial abuse by looking for certain clues.
"The person all of a sudden has unpaid bills, or there's no food in the house . there could be something going on," she said. "Or, there's a change in banking patterns you may start noticing that there's a disparity between an elder's income and assets and their lifestyle."
Martin said local banks are also on the alert for signs of financial abuse among their elderly clients. Tellers now report suspected abuse through the Bank Reporting Project.
"An example would be a person coming in and taking out large sums of money or checks. In many instances we will be called," she said.
The stress of the tightening economy has also forced many families to move in together, another situation where Martin said her agency sees a spike in physical or psychological abuse.
"The person may be yelling at [the elder], threatening to put them in a nursing home, swearing at them, calling them stupid . all the horrible ways you can belittle a person," she said.
Bell said her agency has also seen a spike in the reports of another form of abuse self-neglect among elders.
"Our numbers have doubled and tripled," she said. "Every time you go to the grocery store everything is more expensive, health care co-pays may have changed, there are people who are just not making it."
How you can help
Martin said anyone who suspects an elderly neighbor, friend or relative is suffering from any form of abuse can call the state's 24-hour toll-free elder abuse hotline at 1-800-922-2275 and leave an anonymous report.
They can also contact Protective Services at Greater Springfield Elder Services directly by calling 781-8800. Hampshire County residents can contact Protective Services Highland Valley Elder Services at 1-800-322-0551.
Sabato, protective services coordinator for the GSSSI, said that protective services works with the elder and his or her family to resolve issues, but will only take intervention as far as a competent elder wishes things to go.
"People who hear protective services think DSS, that we are going to come in and put [the elder] in a nursing home and put [abusers] in jail," Sabato said. "Protective Services only steps in as far as the elder wants us to."