Prosecutor Urges All to be Aware
of Signs of Elder Abuse and Neglect
As a prosecutor in Jackson County for 15 years, I have seen many cases of child abuse and domestic violence over the course of my career. Some of these cases stand out from others, but all are tragic and heartbreaking. Fortunately, over the years these problems have received much needed attention from the public. Many positive steps have been taken to address and mitigate child abuse and domestic violence. Legislation mandating reporting and creating appropriate criminal charges, public and private funding for shelters and the creation of child protection centers are several examples of attempts to protect our community.
The fight against child and domestic abuse should continue to be a priority. However, we must also take notice of another vulnerable segment of society suffering abuse and neglect. June 15, 2008 was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The day was to serve as a call-to-action for individuals, organizations and communities to raise awareness about elder abuse. Unfortunately, this day came and went with very little attention drawn to this important problem. Ten days earlier, my office filed charges in the worst elder abuse case I have seen in my fifteen years of prosecuting crime. The defendant faces second degree murder charges for the death of her mother who suffered numerous fractured bones, bed sores that had tunneled to the bone, malnutrition and dehydration.
According to the best available estimates, between 1 and 2 million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited, or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection. Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation in Aging America. 2003. Washington, DC: National Research Council Panel to Review Risk and Prevalence of Elder Abuse and Neglect. Equally disturbing, it has been estimated that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation, or self-neglect reported to authorities, about five more go unreported. National Elder Abuse Incidence Study, National Center on Elder Abuse at American Public Human Services Association in Washington D.C. (1998).
As relatives, neighbors and friends, we have an obligation to protect our elderly who are dependent on others to care for their basic needs. We must learn to recognize the risk factors associated with elder abuse such as social isolation and mental impairment. Look for and question obvious signs of abuse such as bruising, welts, lacerations, broken bones, broken eyeglasses, untreated injuries and signs of being subjected to restraints. Be aware of other signs that typically accompany elder abuse such as verbal insults, threats, intimidation, or humiliation by a care provider.
In addition to abuse, we must educate ourselves on the indicators of elder neglect. Neglect is the refusal or failure to provide life necessities such as food, water, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medicine, comfort, or personal safety. Possible signs of neglect include dehydration, malnutrition, poor personal hygiene, and unattended or untreated health problems. Hazardous or unsafe living conditions such as improper wiring, no heat, no running water, or unsanitary and unclean living conditions may also be indicative of neglect.
Elder abuse also includes financial or material exploitation. Consider whether there are any abrupt changes in an elderly person’s will or other financial documents. Look for excessive or unnecessary home improvement projects or unexplained disappearances of funds and valuable possessions.
Most importantly, we have an obligation to act on our suspicions and observations. Elder abuse and neglect is a crime. Like all criminal activity, report any concerns you have to our local police agencies in addition to state agencies. Do not hesitate to utilize 911. Local police departments are trained to recognize and investigate elder abuse. Cases of elder abuse undoubtedly go unreported because many do not want to get involved in what they see as a private family matter. We have come a long way in changing such perceptions in the realm of child and domestic abuse. Our elderly deserve the same concern and protection.