Editor’s note: Elder abuse, which targets people at the most vulnerable time in their life, strips them of health, physical safety, finances, and even adequate nutrition. How do we find elder-abuse victims in our communities? And how can we help them? Here, two elder-abuse experts talk about an innovative, comprehensive program to give victims everything they need to live a safe, comfortable life.
By Joy Solomon and Malya Levin
A building super pressures an elderly tenant who lives alone to assign her power of attorney to him, and begins draining the tenant’s assets. An older woman’s mentally ill adult son ties his mother up and sets the rug underneath her on fire. A daughter berates and embarrasses her mother who has come to live with her after suffering a stroke, repeatedly asking if she is “wearing her diapers” and threatening to throw her out if she does not keep herself and the house clean.
The older adults in these stories have something in common: they are all victims of elder abuse who left lives of exploitation for the safe haven of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. When the center opened in 2005, it was the first facility of its kind in the U.S.
Elder abuse is a term used to refer to several different types of mistreatment of older adults, generally committed by someone with a special relationship to that adult—a “friend,” relative or neighbor. Kinds of abuse include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, neglect and financial abuse.
It is a rampant problem, with 1.5 to 2 million cases each year, and $2.9 billion taken from victims annually. And the numbers of abuse victims will grow in the coming years: The aging of the baby boomer generation, coupled with generally increased life expectancy, makes older adults the fastest growing segment of the US population. By 2030, there will be 71.5 million Americans over the age of sixty-five and 9.6 million over the age of eighty-five.
When the Weinberg Center opened its doors, it provided a new model for addressing and preventing this growing problem. It’s a regional shelter providing 24-hour coordinated care involving all aspects of a patient’s life. Shelter residents benefit from the Home’s medical, psychological and social programs, as well as its 24-hour security. When it’s needed, we provide legal advocacy as well.
Like many facilities for abused people, the shelter is a temporary haven. While the patients are there, the staff works with them to create a comprehensive care plan that focuses on safe options for permanent residence, either at a long-term care facility or in the community.
Besides direct assistance to elder abuse victims via the shelter, the Weinberg Center does community outreach and trainings on how to properly identify and respond to elder abuse. Warning signs can include unexplained injuries, emotional distress, withdrawn or self-destructive behavior, an unexplained loss of financial independence or control, a home in disarray, or poor personal hygiene.
If community members, particularly those who have regular structured contact with older adults, such as doctors, police officers, bank employees and even doormen, were educated on the signs, symptoms and appropriate response to suspected elder abuse, elder abuse statistics might begin to change for the better. The Weinberg Center crafts individually tailored presentations for groups like these, in addition to creating and distributing informational articles and other materials.
We’re proud that this shelter model created by the Weinberg Center has been replicated in communities throughout the United States. When more citizens are informed about how to spot and respond to elder abuse, and more victims receive comprehensive shelter and care, older adults will be able to claim their right to live with dignity and without fear.
Joy Solomon is the Managing Attorney and Director of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, New York. Malya Levin, the inaugural recipient of the Weinberg Center's Brooklyn Law School and David Berg Center Law and Aging Fellowship.
To refer a New York City-area patient to the program, call 1-800-56-SENIOR. To find out more about elder abuse and what you can do, visit the National Center on Elder Abuse and womenshealth.gov. And if you see someone being abused, call police immediately.