Agency urges watchful eye for elder abuse

State and local agencies are urging vigilance in taking action against abuse in the care of the elderly, as today marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which is being promoted by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

"To me, there's not much difference between elder abuse, and child abuse, they're both a vulnerable populations" said Susan Craig, director of Henry County Senior Services. She works closely with the area's elderly population. The serious nature of elder abuse should not be understated, she added.

Craig said her agency encounters 10 to 15 cases of elder abuse each year, and she takes steps to address those cases as soon as they are detected. "If we even suspect that an elderly person is being exploited, abused or neglected, we are mandated to report this to [Georgia] Adult Protective Services," she said. "If I thought a person was being abused, I would call the police."

Craig said abuse of an elderly person can include sexual abuse, and even starvation. Senior Services, she said, works to identify "triggers," which indicate an elderly person could be at risk for abuse. Those triggers, she said, range from bedsores and bruises, to adult diapers not being changed on a regular basis.

Abuse, Craig added, can also take forms which are not visible on the human body, such as someone taking an older individual's Social Security check, and cashing it for personal use. In addition, Craig said, elderly people can sometimes unwittingly cause damage to their own well-being by "neglecting themselves," as in the case of patients with dementia. Those cases, she said, are more prevalent when an elderly person's family is not involved in his or her daily care.

"If I thought they were neglecting themselves, I would ... send a case manager to them," Craig said.

She added that the public should take measures to stop abuse of the elderly, whenever they suspect it. "The report that you make might result in the saving of someone's life."

Deborah Cotton, senior program specialist for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), works to address issues related to seniors in 10 metropolitan Atlanta counties, including Henry and Clayton. Elder abuse, she said, is sometimes prolonged because of a fear factor within individuals being abused.

"No one really knows how big the problem is, because relatively few cases are identified, and elders are very reluctant to report mistreatment," Cotton said. An accurate reporting of such cases by the public, she added, is made more difficult because abuse is not limited to a particular segment of the population. To help deal with the problem, Cotton said, the ARC operates an Elder Rights Task Force, which meets quarterly on issues affecting seniors, including abuse.

"When they report, it's anonymous, so they can know that it's OK to talk to someone," she said.

Jennifer Hogan, an elder abuse and consumer fraud prevention coordinator for the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Aging Services, said consumer fraud has taken place in increasing numbers against the elderly in Georgia in recent years.

"The numbers are hard to tie down," said Hogan. "Georgia is in the top 10 [states] for the most mortgage fraud, and in the top three for identity fraud for the whole population. Older Americans, because they are often isolated, and have good credit, are often the targets of such frauds."

Hogan added that stacks of unpaid bills or written warnings by financial institutions, in the home of an older person, who is typically responsible with their money, can serve as a signal of an ongoing fraud. The Division of Aging Services defines elder abuse, as any type of abuse committed against a person, age 60 or older. In a written statement issued Friday, according to the state agency, such cases are underreported in the United States.

"One out of every nine Americans experiences elder abuse, yet few know how to recognize an epidemic that may affect an estimated 176,000 older Georgians per year," the DHS reported. "According to national studies, only 7 percent of cases are reported, leaving 13 elders to suffer for every one older adult who finds help."

The report said that 90 percent of elder-abuse cases involve family members, friends and in-home caregivers, of the person being abused. For more information, visit the web site of the National Center for Elder Abuse, at http://www.ncea.aoa.gov.