Elder abuse often not reported

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Carol Sorgen

Social worker Ellyn M. Loy counsels older adults and their families if they are concerned about physical, psychological, sexual or financial abuse. She is the director of SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the types and extent of elder abuse, and refers its victims and their families to agencies that provide support and safety.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Ellyn M. Loy has seen a number of cases of abuse in her years as a licensed clinical social worker — first at House of Ruth, a shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and now as director of SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders. 

One of the most troubling cases Loy has seen recently is that of a 90-year-old woman who, though mentally “with it” and owning her own home, had been taken advantage of by her granddaughter, who lived with her and had become the payee for the woman’s Social Security benefits.

 The woman was kept isolated in her room, without access to her friends, her money, or any of her identification. Her family refused to take her to church or even to the store. 

In part because her family also withheld needed medication, the woman frequently became ill. After her second hospitalization, while recovering at a rehabilitation center, the woman begged a social worker to help, finally admitting that her daughter-in-law and granddaughter were abusing her. 

That’s when Loy and her staff from SAFE were called in. They investigated and confirmed what was happening, at which point they stopped the woman’s Social Security check from going to her family.

“When the woman’s family found out that her Social Security check was no longer going to them,” Loy said, “they dumped her remaining belongings on the floor of her room at the rehab center,” and have made no further attempt to communicate with her. She is now finally in a safe situation.

Elder abuse is a growing public health concern. So much so that there is an annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, this year taking place on Monday, June 15.

Elder abuse takes many forms, said Barbara Korenblit, chief of the Division of Individual and Family Services of the Baltimore County Department of Aging (BCDA). Among them are physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and financial abuse.

As in the example above, many situations involve more than one type at the same time, and in two out of three cases, the abuser is the victim’s child, grandchild or spouse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

As a result, victims frequently refrain from reporting such abuse, either to protect their family members, out of fear of reprisal, or because they don’t want to be taken from their home and family and sent to a facility.

Even so, more than 2 million cases of elder abuse are reported each year. And surveys suggest that 10 to 20 times that number go unreported. 

Hence, the need for organizations like SAFE — which addresses the needs of women, men, children and elders who experience physical, psychological, sexual or financial abuse.

The free, nonsectarian program was launched in 2013 by Jewish Community Services (JCS), Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, and CHANA, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

SAFE provides crisis intervention, education and consultation, and also advocates for community awareness, safety and healing to help abused seniors in northwest Baltimore get the care they need.

“The state of Maryland looks at SAFE as a model for addressing elder abuse in other communities around the state,” said Loy. “Members of SAFE’s staff consult with other social service agencies as to how to best develop a support system for vulnerable older adults.”

“Those who are most vulnerable to abuse,” said BCDA’s Korenblit, “are those who are isolated and not in regular contact with family and friends.”

She suggests that regular use of senior centers and adult day care centers is a good way to make sure that an older person has regular contact with others who can monitor any changes in behavior or physical or emotional condition.

Many kinds and signs of abuse

Signs that an elder might be the victim of abuse are depression, unexplained cuts and bruises, secretive or withdrawn behavior, unexplained financial withdrawals, or change in financial situation.

Besides the obvious personal impact on the elder being abused, the ramifications extend to increased hospital and nursing home costs, as well as monies lost due to financial exploitation.

For example, in one instance, an adult daughter living out of town called SAFE because she was concerned that her drug-addicted brother was using their mother’s money as well as her medications.

Not all abuse is intentional, said Korenblit. During one home visit she conducted, she observed that the husband (who was elderly himself) was the sole caregiver for his wife, who had dementia. He was treating her roughly, tugging her with a belt to get her to move more quickly.

Korenblit was able to teach him about the symptoms of dementia, including the fact that his wife just couldn’t respond to him as quickly as he wanted. “He became less frustrated and more the loving husband he wanted to be,” she said.

And not all bruises, cuts and falls are caused by abuse, she added. One of the BCDA’s concerns is “rough behavior” in nursing homes, which is frequently reported by visiting family members or friends. In these instances, the county’s long-term care ombudsman will go out to visit and determine if any abuse or mistreatment is taking place.

Part of the mission of SAFE is also to educate the public about this troubling situation. So Loy routinely visits senior centers in Baltimore City and County, as well as physicians, emergency rooms, community agencies and more.

In addition to SAFE, there are a number of programs that provide services to elders who are victims of, or at risk of, abuse.

Every county in Maryland, for example, has a division of Adult Protective Services within its Department of Social Services.

For those living in a nursing home where there is suspected abuse, there are volunteer and career Long-Term Care Ombudsmen, trained by the Maryland Department of Aging and managed by local area agencies on aging. Calls to these agencies can be anonymous, and there is no penalty if your suspicions turn out to be unfounded.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Korenblit.

Where to get help

To report suspected abuse or to find out more about elder abuse and services available, contact:

• Baltimore County Department of Social Services, Adult Protective Services at (410) 853-3000 or Baltimore City Department of Social Services at (410) 361-5000

• Baltimore County Department of Aging, Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program at (410) 887-4200

• SAFE, (410) 234-0030 or www.chanabaltimore.org

• Baltimore County Department of Health at (410) 887-2740 or (410) 887-2754

• Baltimore County and City Police Departments at 911 for emergencies

• Maryland Adult Protective Services at your local Department of Social Services office or 1-800-91-PREVENT (1-800-917-7383)

• Pro Bono Counseling Project at (410) 825-1001

On Monday, June 15, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, a public education forum will be hosted by BC-REST (Baltimore County Restoring Elder Safety Today), an elder abuse prevention coalition.

The free event will be held at Perry Hall Library, 9685 Honeygo Blvd., from 10 a.m. to noon, and will feature speakers who will address the types and signs of elder abuse, and discuss how to identify, report and prevent it.

Social worker Ellyn M. Loy counsels older adults and their families if they are concerned about physical, psychological, sexual or financial abuse. She is the director of SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders, a nonprofit that raises awareness of the types and extent of elder abuse, and refers its victims and their families to agencies that provide support and safety.