Deirdre M.W. Lok, assistant director and general counsel of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention, spoke at an elder abuse forum filled with community leaders from a variety of organizations and businesses about the often overlooked issue of elderly abuse, emphasizing the fact that most of the time it happens under our noses without our knowledge.
Lok shared the case of an 82-year-old woman named Irene, who suffered from abuse by her son for months without anyone close to her realizing it.
Irene, who had been struck by her alcoholic son many years ago and had severed ties with him, welcomed him back into her life after he hit rock bottom and asked to rekindle their relationship and move in with her.
Soon after moving in, Irene’s son traded places with his mom and slept in her bed while she slept on the couch—“Warning sign number one,” Lok said.
As time went on, Irene realized her son still didn’t have his drinking under control and began to refuse giving him money, to which he began yelling and demanding money from her. Eventually, he forced her to go to her bank with him and cash her pension and social security checks. Though that was out of the norm for her typical bank routine, the bank teller didn’t ask any questions.
More and more incidents occurred as her son continued to live with and take advantage of Irene—eventually he began hiding her walker and dentures so she would give him money and stay in the house. As Irene became more and more defeated, she stopped taking care of herself, leading to dehydration and hospitalization.
Irene’s close friends finally began to realize how little they were seeing her anymore, and brought their concerns to the executive director of the senior center they belonged to. The executive director brought in Adult Protective Services (APS) who, through an order of protection, brought her to Lok’s elder abuse shelter.
“In the end she recovered, and without those threats her life greatly improved,” Lok concluded.
“I think it’s a great example [of elder abuse],” Lok added. “When we think of abuse, we think of black eyes and bloody noses, and this is a case where there’s not a single black and blue bruise on her—it’s about power and control issues, history and the family dynamic, but there is physical and emotional abuse and neglect, which are all the makings for someone who is an elder abuse victim.”
So what’s the answer to preventing elder abuse?
“The real resolution is the community,” Lok said. “Coming together and identifying [Irene] and what was going on with her is what saved her.”
According to Lok, only one in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported to any authorities, and 90 percent of elder abusers are actually family members, with financial abuse being one of the top issues with the elderly--$2.9 billion dollars are lost to financial abuse of elders each year, Lok said.
“That’s a lot of money in a time where we could all use a lot more of,” Lok said.
Besides self-neglect, financial exploitation is the number one reason for referrals to Adult Protective Services, said Paula Vielkind, adult services specialist at the Bureau of Adult Services in the NYS Office of Children and Families.
Vielkind added that if you have concerns about an elder in your professional or personal capacity, it is important to call Adult Protective Services because more often than not, elders’ relatives don’t live close enough to keep an eye on them and notice anything suspicious.
“We’re seeing more and more that people are often in neighborhoods where not everyone knows anybody anymore and families are not as close by as they often were in decades past,” Vielkind said. “We have more and more adult children living out of state or away, so it gets very interesting to see who has the eyes on the elder.”
If anyone wants to call in protective services for an elder they are worried about, they only need to meet three criteria: the person has to have a mental or physical impairment (it doesn’t have to be permanent) that impacts their ability to complete their daily living or causes them to be at risk of some harm; they’re unable to meet their own needs or apply for services or any assistance they might need to support themselves or may be at the point where they don’t even realize they are at risk of harm; and have no one else willing and able to assist them responsibly.
“You don’t have to make a diagnosis, you just have to have a suspicion that something isn’t right,” Vielkind explained. “If it’s an emergency, APS is expected to see them in 24 hours and have 60 days to make an assessment to make as many calls as possible and to examine and address whatever concerns were expressed in the referral.”
To learn more about Saratoga Adult Protective Services, call (518) 884-4140 or visit www.ocfs.state.ny.us.
“You have to ask the questions if you’re suspicious,” Lok said. “It’s hard, but without asking the question you’re never going to know the answer.”