The term “elder abuse” has many and varied connotations. When we hear the term, some of us are inclined to think of an elderly person being tricked into giving up major portions of a life’s savings, whether to unscrupulous family members or perfect strangers. Some of us imagine an older person who is deliberately isolated by another person, controlled and bullied with verbal degradation or threats. Perhaps you personally have heard of an elder who experienced physical injury or significant neglect at the hands of another person. Any such activity is rarely a one-time event in the life of an abused elder. The abuse is often ongoing, and in 90% of cases, the abuser is a family member.
Elderly persons who are abused have a 300% higher risk for death than the general population, and direct medical costs associated with violent injuries to older adults are estimated to add well over $5 billion to the nation’s annual health expenditures.
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office estimates that more than 50,000 endangered Hoosier adults are abused, neglected and exploited each year, and as few as one in 25 cases is actually reported to authorities. Why so few? Researchers explain that our current elderly were raised in a society that, for example, did not encourage speaking about domestic violence, seeking restraining orders, or talking about feelings and emotional needs. In addition, the fear of what can happen to them and/or the abuser if the authorities become involved in present circumstances can be overwhelming.
For these and other reasons, compromised individuals who are at the mercy of their abusers are not likely to say or do anything that could potentially get the abuser in trouble or cause him/her to increase the abuse. It is essential that each of us, as onlookers, bear some of the responsibility in observing for and (if warranted) intervening for elders appearing to be in vulnerable positions.
The United Nations has designated June 15, 2017 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. On this and every day—while awareness is a good thing, and it’s important to remember the continually increasing prevalence of elder abuse as our population ages—we must also figure out how to arrest the problem! It would appear that the best solution will include all of us. It is not enough for us to simply be aware and think about the problem; each of us can take just a bit of time to familiarize ourselves with how to recognize the “Red Flags of Abuse” and observe for them in the people around us to ensure that our neighbors and friends can be completely safe and free from fear.
Remember that acting on suspected abuse by reporting to authorities could save a life. None of us can afford to assume that elder abuse is someone else’s problem, far away from our own sphere of comfort and peace. This year, for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and going forward, let’s do more than raise awareness. Let’s affirm that when mistreatment happens to only one person, one time, it has actually happened to all of us—in an extreme and deplorable cost to our collective human dignity.