The 5 million victims of elder abuse rarely find themselves in the spotlight, but on July 26 elder justice took center stage at the National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) conference, hosed this year by Fordham University at the Lincoln Center campus.
Robert Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, offered a keynote presentation, “Forty Years Later: Why Hasn’t Elder Abuse Also Been in the Spotlight?” He was joined by the Administration for Community Living’s Kathleen Otte, regional administrator for New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who offered a personal account of her work in the area of elder abuse.
What constitutes elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation?
Kathleen Otte: “When I was the state director for senior services in New Hampshire, the most common cases were family members who, when times turned rough, felt that their parents’ or grandparents’ monthly social security check was theirs. There was also caregiver burnout. Family members couldn’t keep up with the situation so they left their elder family member in bed for long periods of time without feeding them appropriately or changing them enough, and eventually the person passed away with bedsores. Sadly, another thing we saw were suicides and murders. Caregivers let the situation get to the point where they couldn’t take it any longer, and so they killed their loved one and then committed suicide.”
What are examples of efforts to prevent and address elder abuse?
Otte: “In New Hampshire we created a system to define elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and to count these cases, because there aren’t national statistics about this issue. Since implementing it six years ago we’ve been able to use statistical analysis to find out who might be a candidate for abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
We also educated county and local criminal justice professionals who can prosecute these cases—not just the big cases, but also those involving people who lost their entire life savings when someone swindled them. And Massachusetts has a program that trains professionals in the banking industry to recognize possible signs of abuse, such as older people coming in with a younger person and drawing out large sums of money.”
Why hasn’t elder justice received more national attention?
Robert Blancato: “It’s a hard issue to define and even harder to accept. There are still too many different “forms” of it, but not enough known about each one. It’s also a late-starting movement—entire generations were victims before any action began. This is because of a lack of coordination and a lack of priority on elder abuse at the federal level. Plus, the main funding source for adult protective services was allowed too much discretion at the state level, which resulted in 13 states not spending any money on these services. Title 7 of the Older Americans Act, which funds elder abuse prevention, has received no real increase in funding in over 20 year. This lack of action hasn’t been recognized for what it really is: a form of ageism.
Fortunately, we are doing some things better [nowadays]. Advocacy is better organized now and is more national in scope. There is a more coordinated federal response and more state legislative action than ever before, thanks to passage of the Elder Justice Act. Also, data collection is getting prioritized, which is great, because we live in a world of limited dollars. Data drives dollars, so if you have data you can make a case for money. If you don’t, then you have to get in line with a lot of other people waiting for money. This is important because even though a lot of research has been done in this area, it hasn’t always translated into policy.”
What do we as a country need to do moving forward?
Blancato: “First and foremost, we have to renew the Elder Justice Act, which expires at the end of September. I’m happy to say that that process is underway, but we’re going to need to get co-sponsors for that bill. We also need to connect with child abuse and animal abuse prevention advocates—they have a lot of bills with a lot of co-sponsors pending in Congress, so we should learn why they succeed. In addition, we need to keep the current administration as engaged as possible, including hosting a White House Conference on Aging in 2015. And we need more media attention and interest about these issues.
Derek Jeter says the key to being a good shortstop is to play the ball, rather than let the ball play you. The same thing goes for advocacy. We need to get sharper, edgier, more sophisticated, and more impatient in our advocacy work. Elected officials should feel uncomfortable about not doing enough. When it comes to elder justice, we need to use gentle pressure, but apply it relentlessly.”
Speaking with Blancato and Otte were Patricia Brownell, Ph.D., associate professor emerita for the Graduate School of Social Service and vice president for the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA); Betty Mitchell, director of the East Texas Council on Governments and a past president of NCPEA; and James Collins, chair of the United Nationals Committee on Aging.