Seniors asked to keep an eye out for potential elder abuse

Posted June 15, 2011, at 6:37 p.m.

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Maine is seeing an increase in elder abuse, according to government officials. About 4,000 of an estimated 14,000 cases of senior abuse were reported last year, according to Rick Mooers, who works for the protective services division of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. And that number is on the rise.

Mooers gave a talk Wednesday on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day about how to identify and report elder abuse. About 20 older women attended the session at Spectrum Generations, a nonprofit senior center.

People take advantage of seniors in all sorts of ways, Mooers said.

For instance, “financial violence” involving monetary theft or manipulation takes place in 45 percent of all elder abuse cases Maine DHHS investigates, Mooers said. Other forms of elder abuse include physical, emotional, sexual and psychological.

Elder abuse victims are three times more likely to die over a 10 year period after the abuse than their peers, Mooers said. And it’s hard for an older person to recover quickly from physical or financial abuse.

As an example, Mooer used his mom and how she ties her health to her bank account.

When she was in her late 70s, her husband died and left her a house, which she sold. Her children told her to spend the money from the house, but she said no, she had to make it last.

“She had told me she’d live until she’s 87. I asked, ‘What happens when you’re 87?’ She said she would run out of money. Now she’s 91. I asked her what happened. She said she’d been frugal.”

This, he said, shows how much seniors rely on their often-limited incomes for their independence and their identities. Someone abusing a senior by taking their money can ruin them, he said.

“They give up hope. They physically demise — at a rate three times [that] of their peers. That’s why we call it financial violence,” Mooers said Wednesday.

One excuse Mooers often hears when someone steals from a senior is, “She wanted me to have it — it’s in her will.”

“I will say to them, ‘Have you noticed she isn’t dead yet?’ We work to prosecute these people.”

Family and caregivers are the most likely to abuse elderly people.

Many times family members or caregivers just don’t know how to care for their seniors. As an example, Mooers said that some good-natured family members may not know to turn a bedridden senior so she doesn’t get bed sores. Those sores may later get reported as abuse. So most of Mooers time is spent on education, he said.

“Elderly abuse is just domestic violence grown old,” Mooers said.

The one major difference between domestic violence and elder abuse is that women make up the vast majority of domestic violence victims at about 95 percent. Elder abuse is a little more even; men make up about one-third of victims.

Perhaps the most common excuse, though, is caregiver stress.

“They’ll blame the victim’s behavior. They’ll say, ‘I just toileted her an hour ago and she already went,’” Mooers said. “People choose to abuse. Don’t believe it when someone tells you they were stressed and didn’t know what they were doing.”

The reason Maine DHHS officials know that elder abuse goes largely unreported is because of post-mortem testing. Sometimes they find bones that never healed properly. And sometimes people will talk about the abuse long after it happens, which helped the department come up with the figure that about 14,000 elderly Mainers are being abused annually.

Elder abuse is largely unreported for many reasons, Mooers said. Mooers said one major reason seniors don’t report the crimes is because they are often committed by family members, like their adult children.

“They don’t want to report it. They feel ashamed. They blame themselves — maybe if I’d raised them better, they will say,” Mooers said. “They have no voice. You, me, as neighbors we need to come out, make that phone call and give them a voice.”

Mooers handed each senior in the room a card with the elder abuse hotline number, 800-624-8404, printed in bold, black letters against a highlighter-yellow background.

“I’m so glad there is a number I can call. I’ve seen [cases of elder abuse] a couple times in the last few weeks,” said 88-year-old Esther Lasher, of South Bristol, who attended the talk Wednesday.

Nancy Wilson sat a table away from Lasher, and she too has seen a lot of abuse.

“I’ve been acquainted with too many people who dealt with elder abuse. It’s obscene. There is so much of it,” Wilson, 84, of Bremen said. “Part of it is that Maine is a rural state. People can be isolated.”

Marianne Pinkham, who works at the nonprofit Spectrum Generations, which offers programming to seniors on the coast, said the seniors who attended the talk on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day are the type of people who need to hear it.

“This is a public health crisis,” Pinkham said. “Millions of older Americans are abused each year. We’re bringing a spotlight to the issue here in Maine.”

“A lot of these people are good ambassadors. They are caretakers and their friends are being taken care of by caregivers,” Pinkham said.

They are likely to spot and report abuse, she said.

“About 90 percent of us in the U.S. age healthfully and happily,” Mooers said. “This rampant disease, elder abuse, is only affecting 10 percent of those over 60. But that’s enough. One is too many.”

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