Crimes against the Elderly Frequently Go Undetected or Unreported
Nearly three decades ago, the United States House of Representatives decried mistreatment of the elderly as “a national disgrace,” yet crimes against the old and infirm are increasing, and they remain grossly under-reported. Crime Stoppers of Northwest Ontario urges citizens to learn about and be on the look out for tell-tale signs of mistreatment, neglect, abuse, self-abuse, and exploitation.
The National Center on Aging defines seven kinds of elder abuse, which Felix Chima effectively summarizes (1998, 104):
- Physical abuse: non-accidental use of force that results in body injury, pain or impairment.
- Sexual abuse: non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an older person.
- Emotional or psychological abuse: willful infliction of mental or emotional anguish by threat, humiliation, intimidation or other verbal or non-verbal abusive conduct. Neglect: willful or non-willful failure by the caregiver to fulfill his or her caregiving obligation or duty.
- Financial or material exploitation: unauthorized use of funds, property, or any resources of an older person.
- Self-abuse or neglect: abusive or neglectful conduct of an older person directed at himself or herself that threaten his or her health or safety.
- All other types: all other types of abuse that do not belong to the first six categories.
Because local definitions of abuse vary widely, though, researchers, clinicians and statisticians typically divide elder abuse into two broad categories–physical neglect or mistreatment and financial fraud or exploitation.
Focusing on physical abuse,the U.S National Center on Elder Abuse reports that, every year, up to two million people over 65 are exploited, mistreated, or injured by someone on whom they rely for care and protection.
Their studies also suggest that for every reported case of physical abuse, neglect, or self-abuse, five more go unreported. Similarly, the Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect at the University of California, Irvine cites reliable figures which suggest that 10 percent of elderly Americans – approximately 5 million people – are victims of financial crimes every year. Sadly, however, victims or their families report only one of every 23 cases.
Physical abuse and neglect
Because the states and provinces have very different reporting requirements and data-management systems, researchers have difficulty gathering and sorting information, and much of their best information dates back approximately a decade. Still, the numbers are both staggering and frightening. A study by The National Center on Aging found that approximately 450,000 American senior citizens were abused or neglected “in domestic settings”; when researches added cases of self-abuse, the number swelled to 551,000. Similarly, in 2003, Ombudsman programs investigated and documented nearly 21,000 complaints of gross neglect, exploitation, and abuse in residential care facilities. Among the seven types of abuse Ombudsmen examined, physical abuse was the most common.
Felix Chima (1998, 105) reports that approximately one-third of abuse victims suffer at the hands of their children, and he cites credible studies that indicated at least one in five caregiving children had hit a parent within the previous year. About one-fifth of abuse victims are mistreated by their spouses, and another one-quarter are neglected, abused, or exploited by grandchildren, other relatives, or close friends. Up to 5 percent of abuse cases may include some form of sexual abuse. Chima highlights two conditions which increase the likelihood of abuse: First, families with limited resources have higher rates of abuse than their more affluent neighbors, and second (1998, 106), “The increased burden of caring for relatives with dementia can lead to pathological caring.”
The National Center on Elder Abuse, located at the prestigious UC Irvine School of Medicine, lists the warning signs of neglect, physical or sexual abuse include:
- Poor sanitation: conspicuous lack of basic hygiene, inadequate food, dehydration, and soiled or inappropriate clothing.
- Absent essentials: the absence of medical aids-teeth, glasses, walker, and prescription medications.
- Reckless endangerment: a person with dementia is left unsupervised; a person confined to bed is left without care.
- Derelict living quarters: the home is cluttered and filthy; it lacks proper heating and plumbing, and it may have neither electricity nor gas; the home or living quarters have obvious safety and fire hazards.
- Physical symptoms: weight loss, anemia, pressure ulcers or “bedsores”
- Affective symptoms: a “vacant” look in the eyes, unexplained changes in behavior and withdrawal from normal activities,, insomnia or nightmares, irritability.
- Signs of trauma: inadequately explained bruises, cuts, burns, or fractures, especially unexplained bruising around the hips, thighs, or buttocks; symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases
Financial exploitation and fraud
Kelly Johnson of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing stresses, “Fraud generally involves deliberately deceiving the victim with the promise of goods, services, or other benefits that are nonexistent or never intended to be provided,” and she advises that offenders gain trust with their charisma and by using a business name similar to that of a well-established organization. They’re very good at sincerely communicating their concern for the elder’s well-being.
The most common scams involve prizes and sweepstakes, allegedly lucrative investments, contributions to charities, home or auto repairs or improvements, loans and mortgages, and all kinds of insurance policies.
Johnson alerts consumers to two tell-tale elements in fraudulent sales pitches: “Con-men create the impression that the elder has been ‘chosen’ or is ‘lucky’ to receive the offer, and that such offers are rare. They encourage their victims to make an immediate commitment, effectively limiting opportunities for consultation with others.”
The UC Irvine Center highlights three significant signs of financial abuse:
- Deprivation: Lack of toiletries, comfort items and amenities the elderly person normally could afford.
- Excessive generosity: The elderly person begins giving extravagantly to obscure charities or paying excessively for comfort and companionship, the elderly person starts giving lavish gifts to caregivers.
- Loss of control: The aged person assigns power of attorney or other control to caregivers or relatives without understanding the meaning of the transaction
Effective elder abuse prevention
Advisors at seniorcare.org say, “The best way to ensure your parent or family member does not become a victim of elder abuse is to remain informed and aware of any and all changes, whether physically, emotionally or behaviorally.” They urge
“Keep an open line of communication” with all the people who provide care and services for your elderly loved one, and they very strongly recommend that you communicate face-to-face with them where they deliver their care. Be alert and respond immediately to changes in attitude, behavior, and appetite; be especially responsive to acting-out.
They also urge caregivers themselves to seek support, assistance, and relief when they feel overwhelmed, burned-out, and at-risk of causing harm.
Published by the California Attorney General, “A Citizen’s Guide to Preventing & Reporting Elder Abuse” cites among its “indisputable” facts of elder abuse, “Elder abuse victims often live in silent desperation, unwilling to seek assistance because they unfortunately believe their cries for help will go unanswered and they fear retaliation from their abusers. Many remain silent to protect abusive family members from the legal consequences of their crimes, or are too embarrassed to admit that they have fallen victim to predators. Others fear that no one will believe them – chalking up their allegations to the effects of old age.” In other words, they feel powerless, and they lose their voices.
Chima (1998, 110) derives his “empowerment model” from exactly this premise, making the case for elderly people’s feelings that they have no power to correct or improve their situations. Chima says they “identify themselves as inadequate, and begin to act as they are expected to act, setting the stage for [ongoing abuse].” He therefore advocates public-private collaboration in “Triads,” partnerships among trustworthy caregivers, law enforcement, and community organizations. Triads promote each elderly person’s self-efficiency, develop his or her group-consciousness, reduce self-blame, and encourage the person to regain control over his or her well-being. Naturally, Triads have slightly different objectives and methods for preventing abuse of elderly people suffering dementia, but the notion of empowerment still prevails. Chima notes that people do not achieve empowerment “but rather it is a continual process of growth and change that can occur throughout the life cycle,” and he stresses (1998, 11), “Empowering the elderly [requires] workers to recognize the older person’s competence, society’s responsibility to the older person, and educating them of their rights. (sic)” He also cites studies that strongly suggest connecting older persons with one another most immediately and permanently fosters seniors’ feelings of empowerment.
Combat fraud and elder abuse.
If you suspect physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, call Crime Stoppers of Northwestern Ontario. Apropos of Chima’s Triads, Crime Stoppers is a joint effort of the media, the police, and concerned citizens; one of over 100 similar programs across Canada, Crime Stoppers provides community policing to help protect the least visible, most vulnerable segments of our society– especially the elderly.
To report elder abuse, contact the Crime Stoppers’ hotline. Well-trained representatives staff the safe, completely anonymous hotline 24 hours a day every day of the year. Crime Stoppers do not track or record calls, and they do not gather personal information about hotline callers. When you give information that leads to criminals’ arrest and conviction or recovery of stolen property, you may receive a reward.
If you see or suspect financial exploitation, contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. Barry Elliott founded the Center in North Bay, Ontario, originally combating wide-spread telemarketing fraud in the southeastern part of the province. Since 1983, Elliott’s initiative has grown to serve more than 25,000 consumer-fraud victims every year, and it has become Canada’s most reliable source of fraud data, supplying information and evidence to agents in the Center’s Anti-Rackets Branch. The Ontario Provincial Police note, “The Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre is a national deceptive telemarketing call centre consisting of OPP, RCMP, Competition Bureau and community volunteers. The call centre plays an important role in combating telemarketing and internet fraud by educating the public and collecting and disseminating victim evidence to the appropriate enforcement agencies. ARB has an ‘in-house’ Forensic Chartered Accountant, to provide expert financial analysis and court testimony for ARB investigations.”
Right now, one of your elderly friends or loved ones may be suffering at the hands of a person entrusted with his or her protection and care. Imagine the victim’s pain, degradation, despair, and desperation. You have the power to stop the abuse, ease the victim’s pain, and bring the abuser to justice. “The power to prevent elder abuse is in your hands.”
- Chima, F. 1998. “Familial, Institutional, and Societal Sources of Elder Abuse: Perspective on Empowerment.” Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41421635.