Abuse of the frail elderly is visible all around us

Elise T. Chisolm

June 01, 1993|By Elise T. Chisolm

I saw them in a supermarket first. She was berating him. As a matter of fact she was pinching his arm, hard. He had tears in his eyes. She turned to me and said, "He doesn't even know a potato from a tomato anymore."

The man seemed to be about 70. He'd had a stroke; his right side was paralyzed, he shuffled badly.

When I saw them again at the market, his coordination seemed worse and he seemed confused. She said, "He won't go to a nursing home, and I certainly don't know what to do with him if he gets any worse. I'm up half the night with him now." But she said it so he could hear it.

Every time I saw them I got more depressed, and I didn't even know their names.

Many of my age are coping with a chronic, debilitating disease, which makes for terrible physical and emotional problems. As a curtain of darkness falls between husband and wife, bitterness and resentment are daily emotions.

But then I have a good friend whose wife has Alzheimer's disease. He is kind and sweet to her and tends to her as if she were a delicate flower. Every time I see them, they are holding hands.

Two different senior worlds -- the angry abuser and the patient caretaker.

Because we are all living longer we are going to see more elderly who are ill, and, consequently more elderly who are abused. Nursing home workers will tell you about spousal abuse. There is also elder abuse by the very personnel in the nursing homes.

How many sick people are abused? The elderly and small children are not always able to speak for themselves.

The Maryland Office on Aging reports that in 1992 there were 791 complaints of elder abuse reported in institutions.

Nationally, one out of 20 people 60 and older is said to be abused, and the toll is rising.

These figures do not surprise me, as I am seeing it at the mall, the airport, supermarkets and on the street.

There are many forms of elder abuse -- verbal, physical, emotional, neglect, exploitation. Elder abuse is still under-reported.

But the good news is that both the Maryland Office on Aging and the Department of Human Resources are working together to call attention to this growing problem with educational and outreach programs and referral services.

There are more medicines to keep my age group alive, but at the same time there are more stresses and strains after 65, lack of money, failing health and feelings of abandonment. Some families are not ready for the problem.

The frustrated wife at the supermarket lashing out at her infirm husband is rather typical. She is playing the martyr roll. Her anger is so rampant that she can't control herself. She can't take it, while he is having to take it.

On the other hand, my close friends, coping with Alzheimer's, still maintain a semblance of balance and respect. I look at them and see a kind of halo over his head, and I think of the lines in the wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, in sickness and health, as long as you both shall live." And that's about it, only when you are young you don't think it will ever happen to you.

But it does.

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