Despite hesitation to talk about elder abuse, it’s a growing problem that is plaguing older Americans and is gaining more attention in Washington on dual fronts—its causes and prevention.
Financial abuse alone amounts to $2.9 billion annually according to the Metlife Mature Market Institute, with other forms of fraud and abuse taking steep tolls as well.
“Elder abuse” can be many things, financial exploitation aside. It could be misuse of Power of Attorney, unsanitary living conditions, or lack of care when care is needed.
Those who work in care settings, have a unique opportunity to pick up on cues, elder advocates say, in the detection of abuse cases, with the Assisted Living Federation of America leading the charge toward this effort.
ALFA renewed a campaign in June—National Elder Abuse Awareness Month—serving as a reminder as well as a kickoff to some of the new initiatives under way.
“Elder abuse is something everyone needs to tackle year-round,” says Jackie Kerin, Public Policy Associate for ALFA. “[The association] offers state specific resources all year long that support senior living providers in preventing, detecting, and reporting elder abuse.”
Because the definition varies, estimates place the number of people who suffer from elder abuse between 2 million and 5 million annually. Yet millions more go unreported.
The instances go beyond physical abuse to include neglect, emotional and psychological abuse or exploitation, which often come with warning signs that go well beyond physical cues.
On the State Level
On the state level, ALFA affiliates and chapters have partnered with local authorities, such as a task force under Arizona’s governor’s office that includes senior living stakeholders, officials—even taxi drivers and fire departments—to combat the problem.
“We wanted to reach residents, family members and the general public who aren’t as engaged,” says Arizona ALFA President and CEO Karen Barno. “It may be a family member, spouse or an adult child, which is most commonly [the culprit] and it is everyone’s responsibility to work together toward preventing elder abuse.”
The task force has brought to light instances where a taxi driver, driving a senior home and offering to carry groceries into the house, caught a glimpse of an unsafe or unsanitary situation. Likewise, local fire officials have reported incidents based on their view into the homes of older residents, Barno says, when responding to unrelated calls.
“This is a lot bigger than any of us realized,” she says.
On the National Level
On the national level, there are several allies available toward prevention, detection, and reporting of elder abuse.
These include the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which launched an Office of Older Americans last year and the Long Term Care Ombudsman program, which has served as landmark for national legislation focused on elder justice.
“There is a reluctance to admit that abuse is happening,” Becky Kurtz, Director of the Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman Programs under the Administration on Aging said during an ALFA webinar on the topic. “Older adults can quietly disappear. They may be too incapacitated to report it. Or, the signs may be missed.”
Warning signs could include bruises, fractures, wounds or broken eyeglasses, Kurtz says; signs which often caregivers readily take note of. But they also may be less obvious: a resident’s refusal to see another person alone; hesitation to accept a visitor; or other signs.
Assisted living communities have allies in the Long Term Care Ombudsmen, who are available to respond to the problems and serve as the resident’s advocate—to represent his or her wishes.
“Be familiar with local victim advocates like LTC ombudsman and where to call if suspicions arise,” Kurtz says, noting adult protective services in more than 30 states as well as ALFA as a resource to provide more information on a state-by-state basis.
In addition to those resources, ALFA ran a social media initiative, focused on ageism and its impact on elder abuse, throughout June to raise awareness. One aspect of the campaign, ALFA’s Pledge to Seniors has been viewed by more than 11,000 people to date via Facebook and has garnered attention via other outlets such as Twitter.
“There are many, many ways people can help throughout the year,” Kerin says. “It may be preventing ageism, checking in on an older neighbor, participating in Meals on Wheels; even if it’s taking only a few minutes to do a Facebook post, everyone can do something.”
ALFA’s work with aligning organizations is helping to raise the awareness for a growing problem that affects thousands of seniors each year.
“I applaud ALFA for talking about it,” Barno says. “People don’t want to talk about it, but it’s still there.”
Written by Elizabeth Ecker
This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit www.alfa.org.