Many of us spend our lives dreaming of that moment when we retire from work and fully enjoy all that life has to offer. Unfortunately, for thousands of Mainers, this dream becomes a nightmare they never expected in the form of physical, emotional or financial abuse, often at the hands of a relative or caregiver.
Many of us reaching retirement age can take care of ourselves and it seems impossible that we’d be victimized by abuse, neglect or exploitation. But as our health declines and we become more reliant on others for our care, we all become more vulnerable. Sadly, this vulnerability leads to abuse in far too many situations.
June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in nine Americans over age 60 will experience abuse, neglect or exploitation this year. In Maine, this translates into 26,000 potential victims.
Elder abuse cuts across all socioeconomic groups. Anyone can be a victim, including American icon and actor Mickey Rooney, who told his harrowing tale of abuse, at the hands of his stepchildren, before Congress in March 2011.
More than 80 percent of the perpetrators are family members or caregivers. Because of this, most cases of elder abuse go undetected and unreported. Victims are too afraid or ashamed to ask for help and don’t know where find assistance.
Abusers use fear to control their victims, playing on their worries of being left without care or institutionalized. Victims don’t report the abuse because they don’t want their family members to get in trouble — they just want the abuse to stop.
Older victims often have fewer support systems and are reliant on their abusers for care, so the effect of abuse, neglect and exploitation is magnified, resulting in the loss of independence, complicating illnesses and even death. Victims of financial exploitation are three times more likely to die in the next decade than their peers in the same age group.
The only way to end elder abuse is to get involved. How can you help? Be a good friend. Look for signs of abuse — differences in personality or behavior such as becoming socially isolated or withdrawn, signs of physical abuse and problems with finances. Notice a family member’s threatening or belittling behavior. Ask your loved one if things are OK and offer help.
Call 1-877-ELDERS-1 to get advice about how to help. If you’re really worried, report abuse to Adult Protective Services at 800-624-8404. We can all make a difference if we recognize elder abuse and get involved.
Jessica Maurer, Esq., advocates for Maine’s older people on behalf of Maine’s five Area Agencies on Aging as the executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging. She also chairs the newly created Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention.