Campaign seeks to raise awareness of abuse and neglect of the elderly

Baltimore County urging more reporting of crimes

September 28, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Abuse and neglect are the dark secrets of the elderly.

In nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes, senior citizens are beaten, robbed and left without proper food or medication, say advocates for the elderly.

As a result, the Baltimore County Department of Aging has begun a yearlong campaign to urge more people to report crimes against the elderly and to teach how such acts can be prevented.

The campaign - "Elder Abuse Is A Crying Shame" - began this month. The department has publicized it with billboards in Essex and Catonsville and in a brochure with a cover showing a shattered pair of eyeglasses.

Reports of crimes against senior citizens have increased in recent years. Even so, some elderly people who live with family members are too afraid and embarrassed to tell anyone that their children are mistreating them, said Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the Department of Aging.

"Most complaints come from nursing homes - from family, friends and staff and even residents themselves," Fisher said.

Arlene Goodwich, coordinator of the abuse awareness campaign, notes that elder abuse is "kept under wraps," as domestic violence once was.

"The elderly don't like to talk about it because they're ashamed," she said. "How do you say, `My son gets drunk and takes my money for more alcohol and slaps me around and then comes back and takes care of me?'"

Unlike victims of domestic violence, who can find safe havens such as the House of Ruth, elderly people living at home often have nowhere to go.

"They're afraid they'll be put in a nursing home if they complain," she said.

Goodwich and Fisher also say they believe that abuse in nursing homes has increased because of stressful working conditions faced by low-paid nursing assistants in understaffed facilities.

"Turnover is so high, it takes a while to get them trained," Fisher said.

"We have similar concerns about caregivers [in private homes] who don't seek assistance and don't reach out. It increases their stress level," Fisher said.

Tracking the number of reported cases of abuse and neglect among the elderly is difficult, officials say. Apparently, no central reporting system exists in Baltimore County for nursing homes, assisted living facilities or private homes. County police combine reports of abuse against senior citizens with incidents of abuse against all vulnerable adults older than age 18.

Goodwich said records at the county's Department of Aging show 254 unverified reports from nursing homes of abuse and gross neglect in 1999 and 336 last year.

The county's Department of Social Services, which tracks complaints from private homes, received 405 reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation in 1999 and 411 last year, said Maureen Robinson, the agency's spokeswoman.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which regulates nursing homes, gets about 600 complaints of abuse and neglect each year, said Carol Benner, the director of the Office of Health Care Quality.

In addition to the billboards, Goodwich and an assistant will speak at senior centers about the program. The brochures are being distributed in libraries and senior centers and mailed to caregivers.

To reduce the likelihood of abuse, the brochures recommend that senior citizens keep in touch with friends; have their own telephones; post and open all their mail; and use direct deposit for Social Security and pension checks.

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