Recognizing World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

June 15 marks the seventh annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an occasion intended to bring greater recognition to the under-recognized and often unspoken problem of elder abuse and neglect.

Every person – every man, woman, and child – deserves to be treated with respect and with caring.

Every person – no matter how young or how old – deserves to be safe from harm inflicted by those who live with them, care for them, or come in day-to-day contact with them.

Older people today are more visible, more active, and more independent than ever before. They are living longer and in better health. But as the population of older Americans grows, so does the hidden problem of elder abuse, exploitation, and neglect.

Every year an estimated 2.1 million older Americans are victims of physical, emotional, financial or other forms of abuse and neglect. In Door County, 110 reports of elder abuse and neglect were investigated in 2011. Unfortunately, those statistics likely do not tell the whole story. For every case of elder abuse and neglect that is reported to authorities, experts estimate that there may be as many as five cases that have not been reported. Recent research suggests that elders who have been abused tend to die earlier than those who are not abused, even in the absence of chronic conditions or life threatening disease.

Like other forms of abuse, elder abuse is a complex problem, and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it. Many people who hear “elder abuse and neglect” think about older people living in nursing homes or about elderly relatives who live all alone and never have visitors. But elder abuse is not just a problem of older people living on the margins of our everyday life. It is right in our midst:

• Most incidents of elder abuse don’t happen in a nursing home. Such abuse does occur – but it is not the most common type of elder abuse.

• Most elder abuse and neglect takes place at home. The great majority of older people live in the community either on their own or with spouses, children or other relatives. When elder abuse happens, family members, other household members and paid caregivers are usually the abusers.

• There is no single pattern of elder abuse in the home. Sometimes, the abuse is a continuation of long-standing patterns within the family. Other times, the abuse is related to changes in living situations and relationships brought about by an elder’s changing needs.

• It isn’t just infirm or mentally impaired elderly people who are vulnerable to abuse. Elders who are ill, frail, disabled, mentally impaired, or depressed are at greater risk of abuse, but even those who do not have these obvious risk factors can find themselves in abusive situations and relationships.

Elder abuse, like other forms of violence, is never an acceptable response to any problem or situation, however stressful. Effective interventions can prevent or stop elder abuse. By increasing community awareness, patterns of abuse or neglect can be broken – and both the abused person and the abuser can receive needed help.

What role can you play in preventing elder abuse?

Concerned citizens can play a fundamental role by providing a link between those in need and the service network that exists to help them. You can help spread the word about the problem, advocate for needed policy and reform, and volunteer to provide critical assistance to older adults and the agencies that serve them.

Specifically, concerned citizens can:

• Reach out to at-risk neighbors, friends, or family members. Those most vulnerable to abuse are likely to be isolated as a result of physical, cultural, or geographic barriers. These persons can benefit from companionship, assistance with daily activities, and information.

• Learn more about the problem and services that can help.

• Report abuse if you suspect it. Call the Door County Senior Resource Center at 920.746.2543. Encourage older victims or those at-risk to accept the help that is offered.

• Convey the message that nobody deserves to be abused.

• Advocate for needed services and policies in our community and state.

How can you get involved?

Spread the word. Arrange for or make presentations on elder abuse at churches or synagogues, meetings of civic organizations, clubs, or professional associations.

Advocate. After you have learned about abuse and our community’s needs, share your knowledge and concerns with your elected officials. Policy makers are particularly receptive to hearing about problems from their constituents.

Become a volunteer. There are numerous volunteer opportunities for concerned citizens. These include:

• Long-term ombudsmen volunteers make routine visits to nursing homes to monitor care and advocate on behalf of residents. Locally, call Cindy Frietag with the Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care at 800.815.0015.

• Volunteer guardianship programs provide opportunities for volunteers to help ensure that vulnerable persons’ rights are protected and that they will not be exploited. In Door County, call Erin Szakala with the Door County Senior Center at 920.746.2543.

• Friendly visitor or peer companion programs match volunteers with persons who are isolated, lonesome, or could use a little help or companionship. To volunteer, call Neighbor to Neighbor Volunteer Caregivers of Door County at 920.743.7800.

• Home-delivered meal and/or grocery shopping volunteers provide much needed nutrition to homebound seniors while also offering an opportunity for socialization and connection to the wider community. To become a Meals on Wheels volunteer, call the Door County Senior Center at 920.746.2545. To join the volunteer shopping program, call Linda Stone Winter with the Door County Department of Social Services at 920.746.2300.

For more information on these and other volunteer opportunities in our community, contact the Volunteer Center of Door County at 920.746.7704.

This article is brought to you in part by the Door County Coordinated Community Response (CCR) to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Teams and the Door County Elder and Adult-at-Risk Interdisciplinary Team.