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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Elder abuse — a silent crime

By Helen Karr

Our nation’s population is aging — the 65 and over segment is projected to increase from 25 million (12.4 percent) to more than 71 million (19.6 percent) by 2030. In California, one in four persons will be 65 and older by 2030. And, this population is being abused.

Elder abuse is called the crime of the 21st century. It is a silent crime. It is an evil crime. And it is rampant. According to a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging report, up to 5 million (14 percent) of those 65 and older are abused annually in this nation. In California, elder abuse tops burglary and auto theft as the most frequent crimes; an elder is abused at a rate of more than one every two minutes. And while the number of violent crimes is declining, elder abuse is on the rise.

All 50 states have enacted legislation that authorizes the protection and provision of services for vulnerable, incapacitated or disabled adults through various reporting systems similar to those covered by child abuse laws. Consequently, the inclusion of elder abuse within the family violence framework transformed it into a public health and criminal justice issue. There are four common kinds of elder abuse:

  • Physical: hitting, pushing, sexually molesting, forced confinement in a room, bed or chair, over-medication;
  • Emotional/psychological: humiliating, insulting, name-calling or threatening;
  • Neglect: withholding food or medical attention or leaving a senior in an unsafe or isolated place; and
  • Financial: withholding money, forcing an elder to sell personal property, embezzling, forging or stealing an older person’s money or possessions, and misusing Power of Attorney.

Elder financial abuse is widespread and happens to the very rich, the not so rich and the poor. A 2009 Metlife study found that elders lose $2.6 billion every year from financial exploitation. Financial abuse can be life-threatening since the abuser confiscates assets essential to the health and welfare of the older person. It threatens the economic security and lives of millions of Americans. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, elders who are victims of abuse have a mortality rate three times higher than those who are not victims. Once their money for housing, food, medical care and medicine is gone, elders lose their livelihood and ability to live independently. Elder financial abuse is almost always linked to other forms of abuse.

California recognized the crime of elder physical abuse in 1983, and in 1998 added theft and embezzlement as elder abuse crimes. In 2004, forgery, fraud and identity theft were included. In 2005, California declared May as Elder and Dependent Adult Awareness Month every year. By 2007, financial institutions were mandated to report suspected financial abuse.

Physicians and other health care professionals, law enforcement, social workers and professionals who work with seniors, clergy and animal control officers are required in California to report any form of elder or dependent adult abuse to the local Adult Protective Services and/or law enforcement. Officers and employees of financial institutions are mandated to report financial abuse. But elder abuse is under-recognized because an elderly person might not be aware he or she is a victim of theft or neglect and stays silent. He or she may be too embarrassed or ashamed to report, might feel responsible for the abuse, could fear not being believed, afraid of the abuse, and does not know where or how to report abuse. Mandated reporters need training and the public needs education about the seriousness of abuse.

Elder abuse also is under-prosecuted because it must be reported before it can be investigated. And it must be investigated before it can be prosecuted. It can be stopped. The law encourages everyone to report known or suspicious elder or dependent adult abuse. Call Adult Protective Services. Remember the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King: “To ignore evil is to be an accomplice to evil.”

Helen Karr is a director of the Elder Financial Protection Network and a senior citizen advocate at the local, state and national level.