Elderly abuse is growing problem in Clayton area

By Ed Brock

Zel Thorne is not too worried about her 88-year-old mother, a patient in a convalescence home, being abused.

"And the reason we haven't (had instances of abuse) is because we're there every day," Thorne said. "You've got to be there."

And if Thorne isn't there, somebody is making a call to make sure the Morrow woman's mother is OK. And on other days Thorne is calling patients at the same nursing home to check on them as part of a program created by Clayton County Solicitor General Keith Martin's office.

It's an idea Martin has promoted every time he speaks at certain events and civic groups, such as the Southlake Kiwanis Club where Thorne is a member.

He provides a copy of the booklet "Elder Abuse: An Age Old Problem" to members of the group and on the back of the book is a list with blanks for each day of the week. Participants fill in the blanks with names and numbers of seniors they are to call on that particular day.

"What we're trying to do is get folks to network and have a list of callers and establish contacts," Martin said. "It sends a message to the senior citizens that they're valuable. It sends the same message to the caregiver (in cases where the caregiver is a family member) and that's a pretty significant message."

Martin is impassioned in his speech on the subject of elderly abuse. He includes the "old man's story," describing the hard life of a man who survives seeing his own father murdered and other difficulties only to run the risk of being abused and neglected in his old age.

"That man is my father," Martin says at the end of the story. And, statistically speaking, the person most likely to abuse him is his own son or daughter. In more than half the cases of elder abuse the abuser is a child of the victim. A male child is more likely to abuse his parent.

The abuse can take more forms than physical abuse. The abuse can be physical, sexual or emotional. It can involve neglect or financial exploitation.

Thorne said she has seen fellow patients of her mother essentially abandoned in the nursing facility.

"Their children put them in there and never come back," Thorne said. "It's abuse. It's neglect."

Cases of elder abuse and the abuse of the disabled often go unnoticed by the public, said Anna Greene, an adult services case worker for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services.

"All of the focus is on the kids, and all the elderly and disabled cases can get lost in the shuffle," Greene said.

The number of referrals Greene and the two other adult services case workers received in October was nearly double what it was last year. And the investigation of the cases often requires the victim's approval unless they can be found mentally incompetent.

"We always do the least intrusive to make sure the person is safe," Greene said. "The public consensus is DFCS should go in and take them out of the situation, but we can't do that."

Nationwide in 2001 there were 551,696 reports of elder abuse, Martin said, but he estimates that there were actually almost 670,000 cases that occurred.

In some cases the abusers are seniors themselves who are taking care of their parents.

"I bet there are a lot of 70-year-old caregivers out there," Martin said.

There are some warning signs that relatives and strangers, such as volunteers visiting nursing homes, should look for to detect possible elder abuse.

"Listen (rather than look for it) is probably more appropriate," Martin said.

Listen for a change in attitude of the senior toward the caregiver, and listen for new "friends," especially those who seem inappropriate. And physical manifestations of abuse, such as bruises, should also be noted.

Just as Thorne does, Martin recommended visiting seniors who are in nursing facilities.

It lets the elders know they're still there, Martin said, and lets the facility know that there is some oversight of the senior's care.