Elder abuse: A growing problem Prevention Week offers awareness, solutions

May 02, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

An elderly Carroll woman who entered a local nursing home to recover from an acute illness thought she would be able to go home when she got better.

She got better. But she could not go home.

"She had no home to go to," said Carol Purkins, Carroll County long-term care ombudsman.

"The family had sold it."

Even in Carroll County, elder abuse is a growing problem, she said.

In Maryland, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proclaimed May 2-8 as Elder Abuse Prevention Week, a time for making people aware of the problem and what they can do about it.

"It really does happen, folks," Ms. Purkins said. "I see it all the time. . . . I can't begin to tell you."

The elderly population is growing, she said, and you're going to see more and more abuses, especially with a depressed economy, which can lead to stresses that trigger abuse.

As ombudsman, Ms. Purkins investigates alleged abuses in nursing homes. Twice in the week before her interview, she said, she had been asked to investigate complaints of physical abuse against seniors.

Elder abuse can fall into several categories. People may be abused in institutions or in their own homes. They may suffer physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or they may be financially exploited.

The abuser can be a child, a spouse, a friend, or a service provider, such as a care-giver or an accountant.

Ms. Purkins said drug and alcohol abuse, financial stress, and a family history of violence often contribute to elder abuse.

Four cases of abuse and one case of financial exploitation of the elderly were reported in institutions in Carroll County in fiscal 1991, the last year for which figures are available, Ms. Purkins said.

/# Seven more cases of elder abuse

and four cases of financial exploitation were reported that year outside Carroll institutions, she said.

For every case of elder abuse reported in Maryland, "about eight or 10" cases go unreported, said Handy Brandenburg, program manager for Adult Protective Services in the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

It is hard to track elder abuse, because responsibility for fighting it is divided among several agencies.

The long-term care ombudsman is responsible for combating abuse in nursing homes.

Adult Protective Services, part of the county Department of Social Services, is responsible for protecting "vulnerable" adults, those who are unable physically or mentally to care for themselves.

In many cases, the agency responsible for protecting seniors is the local police department. Elder abuse often appears in police reports as "theft" or "assault," making it hard to distinguish statistically between elder abuse and other crimes.

Mr. Brandenburg said Americans' understanding of elder abuse is as low as our understanding of child abuse was 25 years ago.

Help is available, however.

"It helps to talk about it," Ms. Purkins said. "And there are people out there who will listen."

The job of Adult Protective Services, Mr. Brandenburg said, is to help vulnerable people "stay in their homes and in the community for as long as it is practical and safe."

In many situations, he said, caseworkers can help an abuse victim into a healthier situation simply by providing services such as a ride to a senior citizens center, which allows the senior to get out of the house temporarily.

Ms. Purkins said financial abuse of the elderly is a growing problem.

Financial abuse includes theft, as when an adult child steals a parent's Social Security money. It also includes fraud, such as when a salesperson sells an older person insurance or home repairs that aren't needed.

Ms. Purkins said the elderly are vulnerable to financial exploitation for several reasons.

The elderly may be more trusting than younger people are of strangers, she said. Many elderly women living alone may not have much experience handling financial matters.

Older people are at home more, and may be more likely to speak on the phone with salespeople, she said. And seniors may suffer from memory problems that make them easy targets.

To prevent financial abuse, Ms. Purkins said, "People should try to maintain control as long as possible" over their financial affairs.

Direct deposit of Social Security checks is advised, she said. Seniors should feel free to take their time reading contracts, and get a second opinion if they have questions.

Legal Aid counselors often can help, Ms. Purkins said.

Also, suspect any "today only" offers for goods or services, she said. Don't let yourself be pushed into buying things over the phone. Never pay in advance.

Ms. Purkins said people with elderly neighbors or friends or people who work with the elderly should be alert for signs of abuse.

Anyone suspecting elder abuse in a nursing home should call Carol Purkins at 795-6591.

Anyone who suspects an elderly person is suffering abuse in the community at large should call the county Department of Social Services, 876-2190, and ask for Adult Protective Services, Mr. Brandenburg said.

Abuse may also be reported directly to local police.

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