America has an aging population. But the demographic shift is not unique to our country. In fact, the world’s population of seniors is growing rapidly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 617 million people around the world (or 8.5 of the population worldwide) are aged 65 and over. The number of seniors is projected to increase to about 1 billion by 2030, and to 1.6 billion by 2050 (equivalent to 12 percent and 16.7 percent of the world population, respectively). An aging population can be viewed as a blessing – it means that people are living longer, which could be attributed to better production of food, healthier lifestyle, advancement in medicine, etc. However, an aging population also brings with it enormous challenges, such as a lack of balance between the size of the labor force and those who are retired, increased or increasing demand for health care services for seniors, and more. But with an aging population arises another issue that presents to us a growing crisis – and that is the problem of elder abuse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), elder abuse is “an intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult” with an older adult being someone aged 60 or older. Elder abuse occurs “at the hands of a caregiver or a person the elder trusts”. CDC’s 2016 fact sheet – “Understanding Elder Abuse” provides the descriptions of each type of abuse:
“- Physical—This occurs when an elder experiences illness, pain, or injury as a result of the intentional use of physical force and includes acts such as hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping, and burning.
– Sexual—This involves forced or unwanted sexual interaction of any kind with an older adult. This may include unwanted sexual contact or penetration or non-contact acts such as sexual harassment.
– Emotional or Psychological—This refers to verbal or nonverbal behaviors that inflict anguish, mental pain, fear, or distress on an older adult. Examples include name calling, humiliating, destroying property, or not letting the older adult see friends and family.
– Neglect—This is the failure to meet an older adult’s basic needs. These needs include food, water, shelter, clothing, hygiene, and essential medical care.
– Financial—This is illegally or improperly using an elder’s money, benefits, belongings, property, or assets for the benefit of someone other than the older adult. Examples include taking money from an older adult’s account without proper authority, unauthorized credit card use, and changing a will without permission.”
Elder abuse can take place at home, or in a facility such as nursing home, assisted living, etc., and can be committed by children, spouse, or other family members of the elderly. The prevalence of elder abuse is approximately 10 percent, meaning that 1 in every 10 elderly individual is a victim of abuse. In a study published in 2011, it was reported that an estimated 260,000 older adults in New York have been victims of at least one form of elder abuse in the 12 month-period in 2008-2009. In 2009, the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes reported that “13 percent of all complaints to the California Office of the State Long Term Care Ombudsman involved abuse, gross neglect, or exploitation.”
Elder abuse has grave consequences for the victims. Compared to non-abused peers, those who have been subject to elder abuse are 3 times more likely to have a premature death, 3 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 4 times more likely to be admitted to a nursing home. Direct medical care costs, as a result of injuries to older adults from violent crime, account for $5.3 billion per year. But the true costs of elder abuse go far beyond direct medical costs, in the form of pain and suffering for the loved ones of the abused seniors. Financial elder abuse is widespread, with over $30 billion being stolen from senior citizens in America every year.
There are numerous cases of elder abuse, varying in intensity and type of abuse. Last year, a Georgia man pleaded guilty to the exploitation of a senior citizen and for forgery. He stole money from his father when the latter was in and out of the hospital and rehabilitation. Last month, charges were filed against a man in Montana for allegedly stealing money from his dying elderly neighbor. Recently, in South Carolina, four arrests were made in connection to the alleged abuse or neglect of an elderly relative, resulting in the senior citizen’s death. Alleged perpetrators reportedly beat and restrained a 79-year old man to a bed, and covered his mouth and eyes with duct tape. These are just a few examples out of many.
In various parts of the country, seniors are being victims of abuse. In Georgia, cases of elder abuse have been on the rise. In fiscal year 2016, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened 47 cases of “abuse, neglect and exploitation of at-risk adults”, and the number of cases rose by over 46 percent to 69 cases in 2017. In Knox County, Tennessee, 1,150 cases of elder abuse were reported 2017, a significant increase from 750 cases and 950 cases reported in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In our own state of Wisconsin, nearly 200 cases of elder abuse were reported last year in Door County.
One of the biggest roadblocks in fighting elder abuse is the fact that abuse often remains unreported. The victims of elder abuse may not report being abused, perhaps due to feeling helpless, or thinking that reporting might put them in a more vulnerable position, or out of fears of retaliation. Furthermore, patients with dementia may not be able to recognize abuse and may lack the ability to report. It is also possible that family members of a senior citizen may be hesitant to report abuse if the perpetrator is a fellow family member. Shockingly, only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported to authorities. Even when reported, there may be bureaucratic challenges to addressing this problem. In neighboring Minnesota, it was reported that as of January 1, 2018, the state had a backlog of 826 pending cases of elder abuse and neglect.
Seniors must be protected from abuse, and perpetrators must be brought to justice. Due to an aging population, prevention of elder abuse becomes more difficult. Across the nation, various efforts and initiatives are aimed at drawing attention to this growing crisis. The CDC, considering elder abuse to be a public health problem, has produced informational materials to educate the people about the various aspect of this issue.
Our own state of Wisconsin is taking action to stop elder abuse. Similar to many other parts of the country, we face a demographic challenge too – over the next 20 years, Wisconsin’s population of those 65 years old and older will grow by 72 percent. This increases the urgency to ensure that seniors do not become victims of abuse. Our state’s Attorney General Brad Schimel has created the Elder Abuse Task Force, with professionals from various disciplines and sectors of the economy, “to study the impact of elder abuse in Wisconsin and assess ways to improve outcomes for this growing population of citizens.” The group will develop “strategies to address barriers in investigation and prosecutions of elder abuse”, and “strengthen consumer protection for seniors and create recommendations for improved cross-system communications.” The task force’s activities are already in progress.
Elder abuse affects all of us. We all have an elderly individual in our family, or know someone who is, or will be, a senior citizen. At some point, we hope to be elderly too, if we are already not. As good human beings, we must ensure that our seniors are protected, so that we too may expect the same level of care when we age. That is why, stopping elder abuse should matter to all of us. We must educate ourselves on the issues of elder abuse, be able to recognize abuse in our neighborhood or community, learn how to prevent it from happening, know what resources are available to assist victims and families, and report abuse when it occurs. The problem of elder abuse will not be solved on its own. We need to be pro-active in stopping this growing crisis.