It Can Happen in Any Town, USA

ElderabuseWhat first pops into your mind when you hear the term “elder abuse”? If you’re like many people, you may be confused when you hear that phrase. Many people don’t want to think of older love ones as vulnerable targets for abuse, and most people don’t understand the scope of abuses that can—and do—occur.

Last August, in Lowell, Massachusetts, two 23-year-old caregivers at a nursing home were arrested for elder abuse after posting videos of nursing home residents on SnapChat. One video showed an elderly resident using the toilet while the aid asked about her sex life and drug use; another video showed an elderly woman making noises and showing her teeth in a video the caregiver named “Chucky’s Bride.” The two caregivers were, of course, terminated from their employment, but the damage was already done.

Then there’s the story of an Alameda County (California) Superior Court judge who “helped” his widowed neighbor—or rather helped himself to more than $200,000 of her estate. His penalty? After pleading no contest and striking a deal with prosecutors, he was sentenced to time served and a five-year probation period. He did have to pay back the estate, and he was removed from his position as judge. But the damage was already done.

We have a tendency to read these reports with a sense of horror that anyone would treat an elderly person that way. We also typically respond with a sense of relief that those sorts of crimes don’t happen where we live. But those crimes do happen here.

Last fall, police in Gwinnett County arrested a man for elder abuse after reports that he was neglecting his parents while living in their home and off their income (the son had been unemployed since 2004). The father was left alone in an unsanitary home riddled with cat feces and urine, and the son only fed his father once each day, usually bringing him a McDonald’s hamburger. Meanwhile, his mother was hospitalized with terminal cancer.

These news items have one theme in common: those we should seemingly be able to trust the most—a family member, a police officer, a judge, someone who devotes her career to caring for others—betray that trust and take advantage of someone who is vulnerable.

If you’re wondering just how often crimes of this type occur in our backyard, according to Adult Protective Services (APS), during 2015 they received just under 1,000 referrals for neglect, abuse, and exploitation in Cobb County alone. Between January 1st and mid-February of this year, APS had already received 125 referrals in Cobb.

The good news? Good people are involved in trying to curtail, investigate, and prosecute elder abuse. In Georgia, the Coalition of Advocates for Georgia’s Elderly has proposed legislation to create an elder abuse registry. The purpose of the registry would be to keep records of abusers in order to prevent them from obtaining employment where they could abuse again.

Cobb County boasts a group that brings together professionals from law enforcement, the senior care industry, emergency response agencies, social workers, and community volunteers. The Cobb Elder Abuse Task Force (CEATF) meets regularly to discuss topics pertinent to fighting elder abuse and to ensure that different agencies are working together and sharing information about the latest scams and investigations underway. The CEATF is a unique organization in its approach to bringing diverse viewpoints together to address elder abuse, and it’s one of a limited number of such groups across the United States.

Vic Reynolds, Cobb County District Attorney and Chair of the CEATF says, “The reality is that exploitation, neglect and physical abuse of seniors occurs every day. These are crimes, and they are not tolerated in Cobb County.” Reynolds also notes, “I am equally interested in preventing this devastation. In 2015, prosecutors in my office helped train every Cobb Police patrol officer to recognize signs of possible elder abuse and take action. In addition, my staff works with several agencies and organizations, including the YWCA of Northwest Georgia, which is based in Marietta and has a full-time advocate who assists victims of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. Help is available for people who are being taken advantage of, or physically harmed, or both.”

Combatting elder abuse, though, can be difficult for many reasons. Many seniors who may have been conned in a phone scam or who are otherwise being exploited may feel too ashamed of their own vulnerability to tell anyone about their situation. Some seniors may believe they would be in danger of retaliation from a caregiver or family member whom they depend upon if they report abuse. Likely, far more cases of elder abuse occur than are reported.

Some signs of aging may also be mistaken for elder abuse, so knowing what’s normal and what’s not is crucial to the people who care for older adults as well as for those who investigate these crimes. For instance, an aging loved one who is frail may develop bruises, may fall, may begin to lose weight, may become agitated, and may develop other symptoms that could be the result of elder abuse. These same signs can also be caused by disease processes and illnesses associated with the aging process.

If you suspect that something isn’t quite right, ask questions to find out if the signs you see are indicators of abuse or not. In fact, the best safeguards your aging loved one may have against elder abuse are relatives, friends, and caregivers who are involved in their lives and who are not afraid to speak up if they notice something out of the ordinary.

To learn more about elder abuse and what to do if you suspect someone you love is being abused, visit the Cobb County Elder Abuse Task Force. You’ll find helpful information about signs of elder abuse and ways to report any suspicious activity. You can also see a list of recent cases in Cobb County that were successfully resolved. The National Center on Elder Abuse also provides general information and tips for protection.