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Elder Abuse: Part One

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Elder Abuse: Part One


Elder abuse can take many forms, physical, sexual, emotional, neglect, and financial. Yet these crimes are often hidden from view and rarely reported to authorities.  Dr. Mark Lachs is an expert in both medical geriatrics and social science. He estimates that only one in 44 cases of abuse are reported, and that more than 2.5 million seniors are victimized by caretakers, family members, spouses, and others each year.

“If this were a disease, we would probably say it’s an epidemic,” Lachs told the Philadelphia Enquirer. 

The most common form of elder abuse is financial fraud.  The victims of abuse rarely report it to authorities or to family members. The reasons are many including shame, fear of retaliation, and actual love for the abuser, especially a spouse. Victims were most often between the ages of eighty and eighty-nine. Nearly $3 billion a year are lost to elder abuse.

During a study of emergency room visits by the elderly, Lachs found that nearly one third of the patients had reported abuse. Yet the ER physicians treated only the physical injuries, missing a unique opportunity to intervene.

Another study by Lachs that lasted for thirteen years found that victims of elder abuse died at three times the rate of other seniors who had not been abused.

Each state has its own laws governing elder abuse and some of those states give the problem a low priority. After Congressional hearings and an investigation into the scope of the problem two years ago, Congress passed the Elder Justice Act. Yet, Congress has now twice failed to provide any funding at all to enforce the law, despite President Obama’s request this year for a paltry $21.5 million start-up funds.

The signs of elder abuse are varied but if these signs are visible in your loved one, do not ignore them. Law enforcement can only help if they are informed.  These are some of the signs:

—Unexplained physical injuries such as bruises or broken bones

—Isolation of the senior or refusal of the caregiver to allow the senior to be alone with you

—Signs of malnutrition, dehydration or sudden and unexplained weight loss

—Depression that causes the senior to withdraw from familiar activities

—An inability to pay their bills when they had accumulated enough money in savings
 
This is one real story about how the warning signs of elder abuse went unrecognized by the family and the worst actually happened. It only takes one smooth talking stranger with ill intent to blow apart lifelong financial dreams and turn a family inside-out. In this case, no one in authority wanted to get involved. This is a story of missed opportunities to protect a man who no one knew needed protection.

The long line of red flags became apparent only in hindsight. But the flags were there from the beginning and when ignored, it can turn into a calamity. If any of these patterns sound familiar, it is time to speak up and not stop until you know that your loved one is absolutely safe.

The situation was fairly typical; widower, Sid,* married a widow, Fern,* from the same upscale Midwestern community. Both signed a premarital agreement, Sid sold his home, and moved into her house. Sid’s family was led to believe that there was a basic understanding, “What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine.”

*Names have been changed

Isolation

Flag #1. A pattern of intrusive behavior by a stranger is often the first red flag. Fern was exceptionally bold, to the point of being inappropriate.  According to Sid, Fern arranged an introduction to Sid with the knowledge that Sid’s wife was bedridden and dying. She flirted under the guise of befriending him in his dark days. She even made an appearance to pay respects when Sid’s wife passed away. It caused considerable discomfort for many of the visitors who knew about Fern’s marital track record.

Sid refused to date anyone else.  He sold his home and married Fern after a respectable amount of time had passed. Sid’s family was never invited over to Fern’s house for the entire twelve years, despite easy proximity. When a family member would show up at Fern’s house to see Sid, Fern would often stop them at the door, tell them Sid was taking a nap, and shoo them away like they were beggars. Fern went so far as to physically bar the doorway with her arms more than once. Yet this extreme and disturbing behavior was just accepted by the family as part of the marriage.

Flag #2 Isolation or control of friends and family is a flag.  Fern would screen Sid’s calls and sometimes tell them Sid was unavailable. Sid was a man with many friends, more than most men. He was social and even-tempered. He enjoyed time with his two brothers and believed that family was the most sacred relationship in the world. Yet, within six months of meeting Fern, Sid had no remaining friends and rarely saw any family. According to Sid, when he did, Fern was by his side at all times. There was no opportunity for Sid to pal around with his buddies without Fern also being in attendance, not even the one who had been his neighbor and best friend for 40 years. The old friends stopped speaking. The family was forced to endure the same treatment. If they wanted to see Sid, they were required to tolerate Fern.

Why did Sid allow this to happen? Sid, being a very proud man, refused to listen to friends or family when they complained.  Sid insisted it was their fault, that her presence should not be a problem. Sid was traditional and believed he needed to always side with his wife. After all, he had admitted to his family that peace at home was so important that he would do whatever it took to keep it that way.

Sid did not know how to cook and had no inclination to learn. Fern had never cooked anything in her life. She kept no food whatsoever in her cabinets.

Flag #3 Odd meal arrangements and sudden weight loss are flags. All meals, three times a day, were eaten at restaurants for a dozen years. Sid began to lose weight and not just a few pounds. He brushed it off saying he needed to lose it. He was getting thin. He was healthy but he was starting to look tired, possibly due to inadequate nutrition.

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