Did you know that every day 10,000 people turn 65 in the United States? According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that trend is going to continue for nearly the next 20 years.
At the same time this population is growing, we know that a startling number of elders face abusive conditions. Every year an estimated 5 million older Americans are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation.
But that’s only part of the picture. Experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, about 24 cases go unreported. The U.S. census predicts that by 2015 Montana will have the nation’s fourth-oldest population and that by 2025, 25 percent of Montana will be 65 or older. By 2030, the number is expected to double.
Last year in Montana, Adult Protective Services investigated 6,291 cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of our vulnerable adults, which included the elderly, disabled and intellectually disabled. This was an increase of 5 percent over the previous year, and these are just the reported cases. That is why it is so important that everyone act to protect seniors and other vulnerable adults in our communities.
Most incidents of elder abuse don’t happen in nursing homes and other residential settings. Occasionally, there are shocking reports of staff who abuse residents in their care, or of a resident who physically or sexually abuses another resident. Although such abuse does occur, the majority of older people living in nursing homes and other residential settings have their physical and emotional needs met without experiencing abuse or neglect.
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, 90 percent of the abuse is perpetrated by a relative, most often an adult child, spouse, partner or other caregivers. AARP reports that elders throughout the United States have lost an estimated $2.6 billion or more due to financial abuse and exploitation.
According to the NCEA, about 14 million adults age 65 or older and 19 million adults ages 18 to 64 have a disability. Regrettably, these vulnerable adults are also abused by family members, service providers, care assistance and others.
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There is no single pattern of elder abuse. Sometimes, elder abuse is a continuation of long-standing patterns of violence and physical, emotional or financial abuse within the family. It isn’t just older adults who have poor physical health or cognitive impairments who are vulnerable to abuse. Older individuals who are frail, alone or depressed as well as those with a physical disability, intellectual disability or mental illness are vulnerable as well. Even those who do not have these obvious risk factors can find themselves in abusive situations and relationships. Elder abuse does not discriminate – it affects older men and women across all socioeconomic groups, cultures, races and ethnicities.
Sometimes, older adults harm themselves through self-neglect; for example, not eating or not going to the doctor for needed care. Compulsive hoarding, and alcohol or drug abuse can also be forms of self-neglect. One of the most difficult problems family members face is achieving a balance between respecting an older adult’s autonomy and intervening before self-neglect becomes dangerous.
In Montana, resources are available to assist people with these difficult issues. You can learn more by calling the toll-free Elder Help Line at 1-800-551-3191, which connects you directly to the Area Agency on Aging nearest you. In Missoula County, resource specialists at Missoula Aging Services can assist you; reach them at 728-7682.
Elder abuse, like other forms of violence, is never an acceptable response to any problem or situation, however stressful. Effective interventions can prevent or stop elder abuse. Increasing awareness among physicians, mental health professionals, home health care workers and others who provide services to older adults and family members can help break patterns of abuse or neglect, and both the person experiencing the abuse and the abuser can receive needed help.
Adult Protective Services is calling on all Montanans to take a stand and raise public awareness about elder abuse. We can provide information, tools and resources to support efforts to shed light on the importance of preventing, identifying and responding to this serious, often hidden public health problem. Remember, it only takes one individual, one action, to make a difference.
Michael Hagenlock, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed addition counselor, is bureau chief of Adult Protective Services for the state of Montana.