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Front Page » August 13, 2009 » Senior focus » Elder abuse: A problem we shouldn't live with
Published 2,246 days ago

Elder abuse: A problem we shouldn't live with

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The boy at the door was collecting money by selling candy bars to support a trip to Colorado for a baseball camp he wanted to attend. For John Johnson (not his real name) it was a no-brainer. He wanted to help his young neighbor.

"Just a minute, I have some money in my wallet," said Johnson who had let the 10 year old into his front room.

Johnson went to his bedroom and looked in the top drawer of his dresser. He got out his wallet and walked into the living room.

"How much are they," the 68 year old man asked the boy.

"They are two dollars each Mr. Johnson," said the lad.

As Johnson opened his wallet he was shocked. He knew that he had gone to the bank a few days before and withdrawn about $200 in cash and put it in his wallet. He hadn't spent a penny since and all that was left was one $20 bill."

"Go ahead, give me 10 of them," he said to the boy still trying to weigh where his money had gone.

After the boy had left Johnson sat in his living room trying to figure out what had happened to the money. Had he been robbed? But no one had broken in and he had not even left the house since he got the money. He thought about who had been at the house since his trip to the bank. The gas meter man had come to his door, but he never came in. A UPS driver had delivered a package from his daughter, Kelly, in Arizona, but he didn't come in either. The only person that had been in the house had been his son, Tom. Could he have taken the money? Johnson knew that his son had major financial problems but he couldn't believe that Tom would have taken the money without asking for it. Yet he had been in John's bedroom to adjust Tom's air tanks for his C-Pap machine.

This story plays out time and time again in the United States. Whether Tom did it or not, someone took John's money without his knowledge. Theft? Yes. But worse than that it is a continuing and growing problem that is part of elder abuse.

Old age catches up with people faster than any of them every thought it could.

Today the baby boomers are facing their biggest test since entering young adulthood. They have to make decisions about a myriad of things that will affect the rest of their lives. Unlike being 20 again, mistakes that are made late in life don't have the years from which to be recovered. And as people age they seemingly can become victims of those who would take advantage of them, often due to trust.

For John it was a couple of hundred dollars. For others it is much worse. And it seems the sicker and less able to control their lives seniors get the more people there are out in the world that would take advantage of them.

When we think of abuse we often think of physical pain or mental duress inflicted on a person. But elder abuse is much more than that. It is basically taking advantage of someone who often trusts the perpetrator, and it takes many forms.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, elder abuse itself is any knowing, intended or careless act that causes harm or serious risk of harm to an older person. This harm can come in the form of physical, mental, emotional or financial actions that affect the person. There are seven types of abuse.

•Physical abuse. Use of force to either threaten or injure a vulnerable elderly person.

•Emotional abuse. Verbal attacks, threats, rejection, isolation, or belittling acts that cause or could cause mental anguish, pain, or distress.

•Sexual abuse. Sexual contact that is forced, tricked, threatened, or otherwise coerced upon another person, including those who cannot grant consent.

•Exploitation. Theft, fraud, misuse, or neglect of authority, and use of "undue influence" as a lever to gain control over an older person's money and/or property.

•Neglect. A caregiver's failure or refusal to provide for the vulnerable person's safety, physical or emotional needs.

•Abandonment. Desertion of a frail or vulnerable elder by anyone with a duty of care.

Abusers of the elderly are often hidden in the tapestry of the older persons life. They can be relatives, friends, partners, or professional care givers.

In John's case the abuser was his son. As he started to think about it his son had been trying to control him in many ways. John's health was not the best, but then he still could get around well and drive where he wanted to go. However, Tom had been trying to get him to stop driving and let him handle all his financial and property matters. Tom had also told John that Kelly should not know anything about his financial situation, because he felt that Kelly was just out to "get her dad's money."

John had been suspicious of what Tom had been doing for a long time, especially since he realized how much Tom had been drinking. At times Tom had come to his house in a drunken state, and gave advice to his dad on how he should alter his will because Kelly didn't deserve anything because he had been taking care of things and she has chosen to "move so far away."

Abusers are often hard to spot. They do things like John's son had been doing to him. That doesn't mean every suggestion that a person get help or be careful about something is an abusive move, but abuse usually falls into a pattern of things.

Abusers work to control the elderly person's actions, who they talk to and who they see. They often try to isolate the person from people they know either by keeping them in the house or apartment or by tearing down those people in the person's mind. They also use other threats such as telling the person they need to go to a nursing home or telling them they need to get rid of a pet they love. Of course physical abuse can come in all forms, from slapping to outright beating the person. Some abusers break things around the house or even threatened to hurt or kill a beloved animal.

Over the years people have concentrated on child abuse in our society, but have neglected to see that physical abuse of the elderly is just as great a problem. Often elders who are dependent on someone that is abusing them will not admit that the person is harming them, in fear that they will cause trouble or end up in what they consider an even worse situation.

Physical abuse in elders shows up in signs similar to what they do in children. Unexplained injuries such as slap marks, pressure marks and certain types of burns or blisters can show abuse. Of course broken bones with no good explanation for what happened is another sign.

Neglect is another category that falls under abuse. Untreated bedsores for those that are in bed a lot, unclean clothing, poor hygiene, overgrown hair or nails can all point to the fact that the person taking care of an elderly person is neglecting their duties.

The next time Tom came to John's house, he confronted Tom with the situation.

"You know if you need money you can talk with me," said John. "I know you took the money out of my wallet."

Tom walked out of the house without saying much or admitting guilt. As John stood on the doorstep and watched Tom pull out of the driveway the son yelled at him "I'm the one that always took care of you. Now let's see what you do without me."

Threats of removal of help or assistance is another sign of an abusive relationship.

Elders need to be careful and thoughtful about actions they take in their lives. They can protect themselves to a certain extent by following some guidelines.

•Stay busy and engaged in life. Try not to become isolated and cultivate a strong network of family and friends.

•Be aware of addiction problems those close to you may have. People who drink too much or who use drugs are at high risk of being abusers.

•Refuse to allow anyone, even a close relative, to add his or her name to your bank account without your consent. Never make financial decisions under pressure. Avoid signing over money or property to anyone without first getting legal advice.

•The elderly should assert their right to be treated with dignity and respect. Be clear about what will and won't be tolerated and set boundaries. Even older people have the right to make their own decisions.

•Trust your instincts. Listen to the voice inside that says when something is not right. Ask for help from a trusted associate of some type if you need it.

Making a difference

•Know that elder abuse can happen to anyone.

•Speak up if you have concerns. Trust your instincts.

•Report suspicions of elder abuse to authorities.

•Keep a watchful eye our for family, friends, and neighbors who may be vulnerable.

•Donate you time as a volunteer to help the elderly.

(Information for this article came from the National Center on Elder Abuse).

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August 13, 2009
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