Elder abuse is misunderstood, underreported


According to the Illinois Department on Aging (IDoA), 11,840 reports of elder abuse were received by state authorities in fiscal year 2012.

Study after study has shown that many more cases go unreported. In some of those 11,840 reported cases, the neglect or abuse was willful. That someone would take advantage of the vulnerabilities aging naturally introduces is, of course, disgusting. The problem of elder abuse, as anyone who knows about it sees, is also painfully discouraging. How can a society talk about involving elders in the community or making intergenerational collaboration the norm when this problem goes unsolved, and even undiscussed?

And yet, there’s a good chance anyone reading this has already heard that speech. Every year, state governments and non-profits advocate days or weeks dedicated to the problem of elder abuse. When people hear the PSAs those organizations produce, they tend to tune out. Why? We have the idea that elder abuse just isn’t something that really happens around us. The term often becomes the object of sarcasm because we feel secure – this isn’t happening down the street. None of us would ever do it to the person in our care. In reality, according to the US Agency on Aging’s National Center on Elder Abuse, 90 percent of elder abuse cases are perpetrated by a family member.

The attitude of denial I described is precisely the reason unreported cases of elder abuse drag on. No one in the family, neighborhood or congregation feels they can pick up the phone, because the abuse doesn’t match what they would imagine constitutes abusing an elder.

Elder abuse involves the negligent actions of a caregiver which cause harm to or endanger an elder. This can include sexual abuse or financial abuse (costing American seniors a total of $42.9 billion in 2009, according to a Virginia Tech study), but it also could mean neglect, which, according to a briefing on Illinois elder abuse law prepared by IDoA, means the willful or passive depravation of things essential to life. It might mean the decision to confine an elder in a way that, although it may seem somehow justified in one state of mind, violates that person’s rights.

Especially when working with elders who have dementia or other cognitive impairments, abuse can be a serious danger. I talked to Rebecca Reif, program director for Montgomery Place’s assisted living (they call it “catered living”) program. Reif told me that when she trains new caregivers, she focuses especially on warning them about verbal abuse. It can happen easily, she says — a caregiver becomes frustrated with an elder who’s repeating him or herself. Getting ready for the day is taking longer than usual. A raised voice can quickly create a hostile environment for someone with dementia.

“[People with dementia] read your body language, they can read your tone,” she said. “They may not even understand the content of what you’re saying, but they can read your tone.”

The advice Reid gives to keep this kind of abuse from happening is a change in attitude.

“[Don’t] focus on the task. Focus on the person—that’s how to check yourself … A lot of times it’s not the person that’s doing something; it’s the disease.”

The statewide, 24-hour elder abuse hotline for Illinois is 866-800-1409. Call if you suspect or are experiencing an abusive or negligent situation.

Andrew Holzman can be reached at 773-358-3141.