June 15 is designated as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Most of us are aware of child and domestic abuse, but did you know that elder abuse and exploitation is a growing and under-reported problem? The shocking truth is that in the majority of elder abuse and neglect cases, the perpetrator is a family member, most often an adult child or spouse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of 10 older adults living at home has been a victim of elder abuse. Older adults lose $36.5 billion annually to elder abuse, which encompasses financial exploitation and fraud.
Elder abuse takes many forms: physical, sexual and emotional abuse, passive neglect and self-neglect, and financial exploitation, which is the misuse or withholding of an older adult’s resources. In order to prevent elder abuse, we all need to be aware of red flags or warning signs. These may be physical (bruises, broken bones, abrasions, burns) or emotional (unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness or unusual depression, frequent arguments between the caregiver and older adult). Signs of financial abuse may include unusual withdrawals or insufficient fund activity, concern or confusion about missing funds, forged or suspicious signatures on documents or new and unusual relationships. Finally, neglect may be detected by bedsores, poor hygiene, unusual weight loss or unattended medical needs.
Fortunately, there are several statewide and local initiatives to prevent abuse and support victims. New state laws aim to safeguard senior adults, as well as other vulnerable adults, by imposing enhanced civil and criminal penalties for financial abuse/exploitation. A state-of-the-art Family Safety Center opened in Nashville this year and serves victims of interpersonal violence, including elder abuse. Older adults needing support can access free and confidential counseling, in addition to a wide range of services, under one roof at the Family Safety Center. Additionally, The Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Adult Protective Services is working with other state agencies to improve the investigation, response and service delivery of protective services to vulnerable adults.
To increase public awareness about elder abuse, the Middle Tennessee Elder Watch committee, based at the Council on Aging, is distributing educational pocket guides to financial, medical and law enforcement personnel regarding elder abuse. Many organizations, including FiftyForward, COA, You Have the Power, the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, the Tennessee Department of Commerce and the attorney general’s office, provide scam prevention information and presentations, along with other support services for victims. For a free scam prevention brochure or to sign up for the Council on Aging’s monthly “Scam of the Month” email, please visit www.coamidtn.org.
Abuse of older and vulnerable adults is against the law, and Tennessee is a "mandatory reporting" state. Most incidents of elder abuse, however, sadly go unreported; for every 1 case of elder abuse reported to the authorities, 24 cases go unreported. If you see abuse, or even suspect that an adult is being abused, neglected, or exploited, you must report it. If the abuse is a life threatening emergency, call 911. Otherwise, call the state Adult Protective Services unit toll free at 1-888-277-8366 or contact your local law enforcement agency. You can also visit https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov/.
If the abuse involves mail fraud or scams, contact the U.S. Postal Service at 877-876-2455.
If the abuse is occurring in a long-term care facility, call the Long-Term Care Ombudsman at 877-236-0013.
If you are older than 50, live in Davidson County and have been the victim of abuse, exploitation or another crime, call FiftyForward Victory Over Crime at 615-743-3417 for free assistance.
Please ask yourself if you know an older adult who may be a victim of elder abuse or neglect. You could save a life!
Grace Smith and Ashley Hunter, Guest columnists
The Tennessean, Published 5:00 a.m. CT June 8, 2019