While taken seriously enough to be a legally reportable offense categorized alongside child abuse as either a misdemeanor or a felony - elder abuse does not seem to be taken as seriously by the public. Perhaps elders do not appear to be as helpless as children, but many times they are. And if helplessness is the yardstick, how does it account for the fact that domestic violence, which is not legally reportable, arouses more consternation and receives more attention and media coverage. Perhaps it’s because of national neglect in respecting, supporting and caring for elders in general. Whatever the explanation, elder abuse is on the rise and in the coming years will become pervasive due to an exploding elder population and the simultaneous increase in Alzheimer’s – a disease that ravages the mind and turns elders into confused, unruly and dependent children.
What constitutes Elder Abuse? It is the physical, sexual, emotional and/or financial abuse of older people (over 65 years), usually by family members or caretakers. Abuse occurs in both isolated settings and in nursing institutions by staff members. “Whether the behavior is termed abusive, neglectful or exploitative will probably depend on how frequently the mistreatment occurs, its duration, severity and consequences.” (World Report on Violence and Health) It can happen for a variety of reasons – a debilitating physical or mental illness and/or unwanted long term proximity to the elder which wears down the family member or caretaker as well as greed, anger or money problems in the case of financial abuse. It is a growing problem presently affecting hundreds of thousands of elderly people in the United States, yet it is estimated that only one out of 14 incidents are reported.
In 2010, the eldest baby boomers turned 65. During the next 30 years this population – one of the largest segments of our society - is on track to live longer and more than double the cases of Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. “An estimated 10 million American baby boomers will develop Alzheimer’s in their lifetime placing enormous strains on the U.S. health-care system and the already overburdened network of caregivers, a new report predicts.” (Washington Post, 3/18/2008) Presently, there are 5 million Americans living with the disease – not all of them elders. With this statistic in mind, elder abuse will increase exponentially. Why? Because people afflicted with this disease are difficult to take care of and easy to exploit.
A recent article in the New York Times entitled “The Financial Time Bomb of Longer Lives” focused on age related expenditures by government. The demographic shift that is taking place – “ for the first time in history, people aged 65 and over are about to outnumber children under 5 “ – means that this group is likely to shape the future of our national economic health and financial policies. Having to care for and support our elder family members will impact health care, housing, jobs, business policies, retirement and retirement funding, environmental issues and education. We will no longer be able to ignore this population. We are going to have to take them very seriously and begin to adjust our institutions or we will drown under the enormous economic and emotional burden they create. To begin with, we need to make psychological shifts so that elders are no longer perceived as a burden and potential debt load but as viable, valuable individuals with a lifetime of experience and wisdom to offer. This “attitude adjustment” will have the added benefit of reducing elder abuse.
To address the impact in more tangible ways we have to take a look at the institutions presently in place and begin to alter them so that they will more effectively accommodate this population. Health care, residential centers, community services, support groups, non-profit and private sector jobs, and education for caretakers to stem elder abuse are all areas where attention, growth and transformation are required. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand and continue to view elders’ needs as a personal problem confined to their immediate family. They are a significant part of our society. They are living longer, growing larger and the concurrent health and financial problems are looming - threatening to unravel our social fabric.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
By Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
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