“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Mahatma Gandhi made that statement in the early 1900s, right at the start of the 20th Century. Who are those most vulnerable members? Certainly, they include children, the mentally and physically disabled, and our aged population. Today, 21 years into the 21st Century, Gandhi’s words come back to haunt us as we enter World Elder Abuse Month this June. A decade ago, The United Nations designated June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day to raise mindfulness and knowledge of elder abuse and the various forms it can manifest which include financial, emotional, and physical abuse.
Experts have identified seven types of elder abuse to watch out for: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, neglect, abandonment, financial abuse, and self-neglect. Financial abuse strikes a particular nerve with me since that is what happened to my 94-year-old grandmother Beverley Schottenstein. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, elders are more willing to self-report financial exploitation than other forms of abuse. They are often fearful to report physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect due to the possibility of being harmed. Most elder abuse victims are dependent on their abusers to meet their basic needs, placing the abused in an extremely vulnerable position, fearful of retaliation. Like what happened to my grandmother, most acts of abuse are committed by family members (40% adult children, 15% spouse, 38% other family members). In fact, only 7% of elder abuse cases are committed by non-family members.
Here in the U.S. elder abuse in all its forms is rising, largely due to the isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In our nation’s capital, financial exploitation of elders more than doubled last year, according to DC Attorney General Karl Racine. Racine recently released a statement for Older Americans Month, urging District residents to do more to keep seniors safe from abuse, neglect, and exploitation by better understanding the issue and reporting suspicious actions to the Office of the Attorney General “so older Americans can live their golden years with dignity.”
“Protecting seniors and vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect, and exploitation begins by understanding the warning signs of these harmful practices. We know that for every one case of elder abuse that gets reported to authorities, there are often dozens more that never come to light. My office can only prosecute cases we hear about, so increasing awareness of elder abuse and reporting is key so we can hold abusers accountable, get relief for victims, and prevent further abuse,” Racine added.
So what are the warning signs of elder abuse?
- Changes in behavior
- Becoming isolated
- Avoiding touch
- Anxious when someone enters
- Abnormal financial activity
- Obvious bruising
Looking back, all but one of these warning signs (obvious bruising) were evident with my grandmother for many years prior to her elder abuse case against her grandsons Evan and Avi and their former employer J.P. Morgan. However, my family and I didn’t know what these warning signs meant until it was too late, and as a result, my grandmother suffered years of unchecked abuse and financial exploitation.
Fraud is a serious threat to older adults’ longevity and well-being. Senior adults that were abused have a 300% greater risk of death within the next three years as opposed to those that were not abused according to the Associated Living Federation of America. A recent study of elder abuse found that victims of financial exploitation had mortality rates almost as high as those of victims of caregiver neglect.
According to Rebecca Weber, CEO of the senior advocacy organization Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC), “Elder abuse is a widespread problem in America where 10,000 men and women celebrate their 65th birthdays each day; and where each year more people live longer than ever before. It is no longer unusual for us to live to be as old as 80, 90 and 100 years or more these days thanks to healthier lifestyles and the miracle of modern medicine.” But, as Weber maintains, “With age come new vulnerabilities that can make any of us susceptible to the crimes of angry and greedy predators. And that’s why it is up to younger friends and family who truly care to keep a watchful eye open for anomalies that indicate older loved ones may be victims.”
There are ways to protect yourself and your loved ones. The battle against elder abuse has gained momentum during the year of COVID. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has a National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline (866–720–5721) for reporting pandemic-related fraud. The DOJ National Elder Fraud Hotline (1–833–FRAUD–11), under the Office for Victims of Crime, provides services to adults ages 60 and older who may be victims of financial fraud. The toll-free hotline connects victims with experienced case managers. They can help victims or their advocates file reports with the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the FTC on behalf of victims. Suspected abuse can also be reported to 911 at any time, Adult Protective Services (1-866-552-4464), or the CAVE (Crimes Against the Vulnerable and Elderly) Task Force (706-821-1150).
It’s critical to know the warning signs of elder abuse as well as how and when to report it. We must work together to fight elder abuse through advocacy and education. We must speak up for older victims of exploitation and financial fraud, making our elected officials aware that the most vulnerable in our society need the community’s support now more than ever.