On Mother's Day and Father's Day, we honor and remember our parents and elders. But, do we honor all of them? One of the harsh realities of growing older in the United States is the unprecedented number of older adults being mistreated or exploited. It is estimated that 2 million or more American elders have been subjected to elder abuse, be it physical, mental or financial.
It's a growing and very tragic crime. Elder abuse is at record levels, growing as much as 20% per year. Where does it happen? "You might be surprised," says Suzie Reichel, a Registered Nurse and President of Aadvanced Home Health Services in San Diego. "Abuse can occur in three common settings: in-home care by a family member, in-home care by a medical attendee, or even in nursing homes."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older. By 2050, there will be 88.5 million citizens in that age group, more than doubling the 65-and-over population that exists today. The 85-and-older population is expected to more than triple, from 5.4 million today to 19 million by 2050.
This means the number of American elders at risk from abuse will grow steadily in the coming years.
Here is a recent, tragic example in San Diego: A North County couple recently pled guilty to elder abuse for leaving an 84-year-old man with Parkinson's disease outside in a hot van while they gambled in an air-conditioned casino. A security guard found the man about 5:30 p.m. in the parking garage. When firefighters arrived, they broke a window to rescue the man, who was unconscious.
Sadly, many people do not know how to spot the signs of elder abuse, so it continues unreported and unstopped. Sometimes, the victim stays quiet because their only caregiver may also be their abuser. The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study found that more than 500,000 people aged 60+ were victims of domestic abuse and that an estimated 84% of incidents are not reported to authorities, denying victims the protection and support they need. This suggests there is an additional 420,000 unreported abuse cases happening daily.
"I once saw a 6' 4" La Jolla man who, because of abusive treatment, weighed only 105 pounds," says Reichel. "His personal hygiene was awful and he was too weak to move. We managed to put 60 pounds back on him. He began taking walks, and he lived a much better life for the next six years."
The month of May was "Elder Abuse Prevention Month" and it seemed to pass quietly. We should have taken it more seriously. Elder abuse is not a problem for just any single family. It is both a community wide problem as well as a national issue. Elder abuse costs Americans tens of billions of dollars annually in added health care, social services, investigative and legal costs, and lost financial resources.
It is our turn to help the mothers and fathers who looked out for us many years ago. We must stand up and protect those who can no longer protect themselves.
Illinois paramedic Glen Baum remembers the only time he met Mary Barry. His face dropped when asked to identify pictures of the 84-year-old elderly patient he carried on a soiled bedsheet from her home nearly two years ago. She weighed only 70 pounds. Mary Barry died a week later, and her daughters, Jill and Julie Barry, face charges of criminal abuse or neglect of an elderly person.
"If you see anything suspicious, you need to report it. If it is happening today, it will probably escalate tomorrow. Take action!" says Reichel. Aadvanced Home Health Services provides a free list of ways to spot elder abuse.
1. Unexplained physical injuries which suddenly appear, including cuts, bruises, scratches and even broken bones.
2. Serious, persistent bed sores. Proper medical care can prevent bed sores from becoming severe. However, the development of serious and persistent sores could be a warning sign of inadequate or negligent care.
3. Sudden or chronic weight loss unrelated to their medical condition. Withholding of food is a common abusive behavior. While it could be part of a larger health or disease issue, sudden or chronic weigh loss must be addressed quickly.
4. Signs of emotional abuse such as psychological withdrawal, cringing, unwillingness to talk. Use of verbal threats, intimidation, forced isolation, demeaning treatment or coercion constitutes abuse.
5. Signs of sexual abuse such as suspicious physical injuries or bleeding in intimate areas. The "discovery" of unexplained infections, or even the development of STDs, is a serious warning sign of abuse.
6. Unsanitary personal living conditions, including poor personal hygiene. Poor or unkempt personal hygiene is an immediate warning sign. It not only denies elders a sense of personal dignity but it usually signals inadequate care or even outright abuse.
Where can you report elder abuse if you suspect it? First, do not let fear of possible legal complications stop you. As a person reporting abuse, you are shielded from criminal and civil liability.
1. If the abuse happened in a long-term care facility, such as a nursing home or residential care facility, call San Diego's Long-Term Care Ombudsman (858) 560-2507 or (800) 640-4661. You can also call the Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse at the Bureau's toll-free hotline at (800) 722-0432.
2. If the abuse occurred outside a facility, report possible abuse to the San Diego County Adult Protective Services Agency at (858) 495-5660 (800) 510-2020.
3. Law enforcement is always a good place to start. The San Diego County District Attorney's Elder Abuse Unit is recognized as one of the best. Contact them at (619) 531-4040.