Invisible, aging population suffers silentlyAbuse of elders is widely underreported
The following article is the last in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on domestic violence. Called the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help.
The “golden years” are often thought of as a time for those in retirement to kick back, relax and enjoy life after many years of working and raising families. But for some, those years can be lonely and isolating – leaving seniors vulnerable to abuse.
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, it is hard to know for certain how many elderly are suffering from abuse. Cases of elder abuse go widely unnoticed and unreported.
The NCEA website cites one study that estimated only one in 14 cases of elder abuse comes to light. For those that are brought to the attention of authorities, about 90 percent of the abusers are family members.
“Calls made about elder abuse directly to the police department are infrequent,” said Edmonds Police Department Detective Stacie Trykar said.
Most of the calls she receives are reported by Adult Protective Services. APS is mandated – by law – to report cases of abuse, but Trykar said when a report comes in, it has typically been made by a healthcare worker, in-home caregiver or family member – not the victim.
‘We receive calls from family, friends, caregivers, neighbors, Senior Services of Snohomish County and other people that may discover the abuse,” said Karla Potter of Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County said.
She said often the abuse has gone on for decades, and the victim has hidden it from friends and the community.
In the case of physical abuse, Potter said abusers don’t become nicer as they get older;, instead, it only gets worse.
“Women in their 50s and on express that they feel a sense of failure, sadness and disbelief,” she said, “and mention their age as an additional factor of feeling helpless.”
People are living longer and dealing with mental and physical health challenges as they age, she said.
In some instances, the abuser will withhold medical help, medication, food and money, and will isolate the victim from friends and family.
“Some women have no funds of their own and don’t qualify for any type of assistance,” Potter said. “We receive calls for assistance and advice from the woman or man that is being abused.”
She said many elders do not want to go to the DVS shelter; they want to retain their freedom and remain in their homes.
“I am currently working with a woman who is isolated in an outlying area,” Potter said. “Her abuser was just released from prison, and brings his drugs and friends into the home.
“She is disabled, and cannot figure out how to get out. He takes her money, and she has three cats she can’t leave behind.
“Our only means of communication is by e-mail.”
Potter has been in touch with the woman since Jan. 19, and said this is not an isolated case. She calls or emails other victims weekly to check in and make sure they are safe.
Lori Stevens, of Senior Services of Snohomish County, said isolation does factor into abuse of seniors.
“There are definitely signs,” she said, “but they are harder to detect.
“They are no longer in the workplace, and if they have mobility or driving issues, they may be much more confined to their home than in earlier years.”
The aging population is growing, and according to the 2010 census, from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 40.3 million, or 13 percent, of the total U.S population is over 65 years of age, and will make up 20 percent of the population by 2050.
Locally, the elderly are a much higher percentage of the population. The Snohomish Health District estimates that people over 50 years old make up one-third of the county’s population, and one-quarter of people over 65 years of age lived alone in 2010.
While they may be living alone, many elderly have either family members or in-home caregivers to assist with daily living and financial matters.
In addition to physical abuse, Trykar said, elders are often the target of financial abuse and exploitation.
“Financial abuse or exploitation reports are more common than physical abuse reports of the elderly,” she said, “Financial abuse victims are typically victims of their own family members.”
Many times an elderly person will give a family member or caregiver access to his or their bank accounts, she said, only to find out that person has “drained” his or her account of funds.
Financial institutions play a big part in helping to discover this type of abuse, she said.
In one case, she got a call from a bank regarding suspicious activity with a long-term customer’s account. His account had been whittled down to almost nothing within a week by his caregiver.
Trykar explained what was happening to the victim, but he was unwilling to press charges.
“He said, ‘You know what, she takes good care of me,’” she said, “‘so I’d rather be taken advantage of than go to a nursing home.’”
Trykar said the victim was clearly being exploited, but he wanted to remain in his home.
Other types of scams include fake phones calls by someone pretending to be from the IRS or other governmental institutions, fake sweepstakes, or even someone pretending to be a family member in need of money for an emergency.
She said victims of domestic abuse may not report it for several reasons: the victim does not want to lose their freedom by being put in a nursing home; the victim may have dementia or other mental health problems, and may not be able to articulate what is happening, and might be fearful of repercussions; and embarrassment.
“With minimal social supports and for those with little to no family involvement, it may be more difficult for anyone to detect that abuse happening,” Stevens said. “Senior Services of Snohomish County feels that education and outreach is the best way to address the problem.”
On May 13, Senior Services will host a full- day Vulnerable Adult Abuse Conference in Everett. For more information, visit www.SSSC.org.
“We will have speakers from The Everett Police Department, Adult Protective Services, Northwest Justice Project, Victim Support Agencies and others on abuse topics that affect senior citizens,” Stevens said.
How can the elderly protect themselves from domestic abuse?
Stevens offered the following tips:
Stay involved with the community as much as possible – do not become isolated.
Watch your bank statements, protect your information from identity theft, and never give information over the phone;
Be on guard for scammers who may call you or mail you something, claiming they are from the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, your bank, etc.
Plan ahead for when you may not be as capable or cognitively aware to make decisions as you become older. Have a reliable, responsible and trustworthy power of attorney in place for that time.
If you or someone you know is involved in a domestic violence situation, call 911 and seek help first. The following safety plan and checklist can help keep you safe and help you prepare to leave.
• Develop a plan with your children
• Arrange to have a place to go
• Make copies of important papers and hide them
• Have important phone numbers available
• Pack and hide an overnight bag
• Put aside money, spare keys and other important items
During an incident:
• Call the police for help (dial 911)
• Get out if you can
• Bring important items
• Avoid rooms with only one exit
• Avoid the kitchen
When you've decided to get out of an abusive situation, but stay in your home:
• Change the lock, secure doors and windows
• Arrange to have someone stay with you
• Change your phone number
• Obtain a protection order
• Notify trusted friends and family
At the workplace, school, and public places:
• Inform your work, daycare, and schools
• Change your daily routine
• Plan ahead for unexpected contact with the abuser
Checklist for important items
These are the important items you should have with you when you decide to leave. Some of them can be kept somewhere other than at home.
• Credit cards
• Birth certificates for you and your children
• Marriage license
• Car and house keys
• Social Security card
• Phone numbers
• Copies of any important paper
Source: Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County