Elder Abuse

Elderly people in New York City now have a powerful ally watching out for them—the all-knowing unionized doormen of the metropolis.

But although this group has joined a small army of other organizations working to prevent elder abuse, statistics show that this type of victimization is more common than ever.

In an interview with Healthline, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee said she has an idea why. “Compared to other social movements, you have survivors who have led the charge. For the elderly, that's not the case," Greenlee said. "These people are frail and often have cognitive impairment. It's the rest of us who need to raise the voice for them.”

Numbers provided by the National Center on Elder Abuse, which is part of the Administration on Aging overseen by Greenlee, show that as many as 10 percent of elderly people suffer from abuse at least once per year. That number does not include financial exploitation, which is an increasingly common form of elder abuse.

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The New York State Elder Abuse Study in 2010 showed that 41 out of 1,000 elderly people surveyed reported “major” financial exploitation, a higher rate than other forms of abuse, including neglect and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

“People think [abuse] is isolated, and only in nursing homes,” Greenlee said. “In fact, it is broad and widespread, and it's often family members.”

Family Members Are Often Perpetrators

Sixteen years ago, the National Center on Elder Abuse conducted the only national study ever of the scope of elder abuse. That report showed that 90 percent of abusers are family members. Greenlee said it remains one of the fastest-growing aspects of elder abuse, a problem that is snowballing as America ages. 

In 2010, people 65 and older made up 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 20 percent.

The Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at Hebrew Home Riverdale in New York teamed up with the doormen's union long ago to train them on what to look for in cases of elder abuse. But a recent grant has allowed them to expand the program and train workers at other New York City agencies, such as Meals on Wheels.

Joy Solomon, director of Hebrew Home, told Healthline that they are working with the union to expand the program up and down the Eastern seaboard. Elderly people often become isolated, and most do not report incidents of abuse, he said. 

“I think isolation is a key component of how abusers continue the abuse,” Solomon said. “It's the engine that enables it. The doormen are in a very unique position to help identify risky situations, as well as situations that may already be occurring. They're also a very caring group of people.” 

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But nationwide, many elderly people do not live in urban high-rises with doormen, and exploitation of the elderly remains a serious problem. Unlike children, who are protected against abuse by a federal organization, the elderly are often left to fend for themselves.

“I think people falsely assume we have created a federal infrastructure,” Greenlee said of state-run Adult Protective Services programs. “This is not Child Protective Services. We do not have sufficient services.”

Funding remains the biggest hurdle to ramping up federal programs for the elderly. The Elder Justice Coordinating Council was established in 2009 as part of the Affordable Care Act. The group has made several recommendations for increased federal involvement to curtail elder abuse, including: 

  • Launching an elder justice website and creating a national resource center for investigating and prosecuting elder abuse 
  • Developing a national Adult Protective Services system 
  • Helping financial institutions like banks detect financial abuse 

A Florida Family Torn Apart

Bryan Mingle of Jacksonville, Fla., knows all about financial exploitation of the elderly. He moved across the country four years ago to care for his parents after his brother went to prison for stealing from them.

His brother, who is nearing retirement age himself, served as a caregiver to his parents, but was caught forging his father's checks. 

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The state aggressively prosecuted Mingle's brother, who was recently released. He has been treated for drug and alcohol addiction and has been sober for four years.

“I hope my brother can make amends by changing his life and being there now for our mom,” Mingle said. “It can happen."

Mingle's father died while his brother was incarcerated. Both parents went to the same nursing home after his brother's arrest. Both suffered from dementia and other ailments. 

“Law enforcement has to be an equal partner with human services, and bring attention [to the fact] that this is a crime,” Greenlee said of such situations. “People with dementia make great witnesses because it is so clear they have been taken advantage of because of their cognitive impairment.”

Tips for Spotting Elder Abuse

The New York Stock Exchange responded favorably last week to a growing online company that matches families with screened caregivers. Stock in Care.com, in its initial public offering, soared 43 percent on Friday, closing at $23.40 a share.

Care.com can help people find caregivers for their pets and children, as well as seniors. Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care services for Care.com, told Healthline that the business has grown internationally as many countries begin to provide more services for seniors. 

She offers these tips for spotting elder abuse:

  • Get to know a senior well enough to establish a baseline for mood, behavior, and personality. Without that, you can't tell when something's wrong. 
  • If an elderly person becomes withdrawn or mistrustful, or develops a relationship with one trusted person to the exclusion of others, 'that's a real red flag.'
  • If a senior suddenly becomes secretive about finances, something might be awry. 

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