We can all help stop elder abuse, neglect and exploitation

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Connecticut - posted Fri., Jan. 17, 2014
- Contributed Photo

An older woman used to keep an immaculate house – now it’s in disarray, with food scraps and dirty laundry in evidence. An elderly man with diabetes begins roaming the streets, behaving strangely and relieving himself in public. A senior citizen shows up at his bank three days in a row with someone claiming to be his “handyman,” making sizeable withdrawals from his savings account.

Elder abuse –the physical, mental or emotional abuse, neglect or exploitation of a senior citizen – is more common than most people realize, and it’s a problem that’s growing in Connecticut. Statistics from the state Department of Social Services show a steady uptick in reports of elder abuse across the state in the past three years, according to Dorian Long, manager of the department’s Protective Services for the Elderly.

“Self-neglect is our largest category,” said Long. “You may find an elder who is not as involved in the community as he used to be.” Sometimes after a spouse dies, a person may retreat and become isolated, perhaps not know how to do household tasks that were once the spouse’s purview.  “I had a girlfriend whose dad didn’t know how to do laundry,” she said. A widower may eat at fast-food restaurants daily because he doesn’t know how to cook. “Some of it is a lifestyle choice, but some of it is folks struggling to get it together,” she said.

Apart from self-neglect, elders can suffer abuse, neglect or abandonment by family members, caregivers or others. Abuse can be physical – use of force that isn’t accidental and causes bodily pain, injury or impairment – or it can be sexual or emotional in nature. Presence of a sexually-transmitted disease, torn or missing clothing, self-injurious behavior and avoidance of specific settings or people can all be signs of sexual abuse.

Emotional or psychological abuse can take the form of threats, humiliation, or withholding of necessary services. Signs of emotional abuse may include passivity, fear of a caregiver, anger, denial, agitation, or self-soothing behaviors like sucking, biting or rocking. Withdrawal, depression and feelings of helplessness and resignation may also indicate emotional abuse.

Signs of neglect may be fairly obvious, such as wandering, torn or dirty clothing, a messy living space, or piles of unpaid bills. Other signs are more subtle: missing glasses, hearing aids or other medical needs; delaying seeking needed medical treatment; conflicting stories from the elder and his or her caregiver. An elder who gives away more to charity than he or she can reasonably afford may also be the victim of neglect.

Signs of financial exploitation may include loss of valuable possessions, a sudden increase in debt, or excessive attention from a recent acquaintance. A caregiver who seeks an exchange of care for the elder’s assets may also be engaged in exploitation.

The state of Connecticut recently expanded its law on mandated reporting of elder abuse and neglect. While the law has long required physicians, health care personnel, police officers, social workers and clergy members to report suspicions of elder abuse to the Department of Social Services’ Protective Services for the Elderly, the list was recently expanded to include senior center directors. Also included are home health aides, paid homemakers and companions, adult day care center workers, and staff of congregate senior housing.

But anyone – a concerned neighbor, a bank teller, a hairdresser, a grocery clerk – can call the state Protective Services for the Elderly’s hotline to report worrisome circumstances that could endanger an elder’s health, finances or safety.

“We have to do everything we can to protect seniors. That’s our job,” said Edith Prague, commissioner of the new State Department on Aging (SDA) established last spring by Gov. Dannel Malloy. “Seniors spend a great deal of their day at senior center facilities. If anybody is going to be able to notice any kind of abuse and neglect, it’s senior center directors.”

Griswold Senior Center Director Tina Falck was one of many who attended a recent training session aimed at familiarizing senior center directors with the new law and its implications in their work. Mandated reporters can face a $500 fine and misdemeanor charges if they fail to report suspected abuse within 72 hours.

“I’ve made several protective services phone calls recently,” said Falck. “They’ve [DSS] been very good with response time.” The DSS must respond within five days to any reports of abuse with an unannounced home visit to determine the veracity of the report and the elder’s willingness to accept help. The DSS can then serve to notify family members and/or connect the elder with needed services in the community. “We all have our limitations but sometimes it has to go to a higher level,” said Falck. "I’m thankful to have that resource.”

Long emphasized that phone calls to PSE summon protective help, not the police. “We’re not law enforcement. We’re not there to play crazy blame games and lock people up. It’s really to support that elder to be safe,” she said. She cited one instance where an elderly woman with dementia was being cared for by a grown child, who died of a heart attack.  Neighbors who saw that the elder was now alone notified PSE, which was able to arrange for support services that allowed the woman to remain in her home.

In the case of the confused man roaming the streets, a call to PSE sparked a medical exam, which determined that his confusion stemmed from an untreated urinary tract infection. His mental condition improved dramatically after treatment.

There are circumstances, such as theft or physical abuse, that do warrant a call to police, said Mimi Peck-Llewellyn, staff attorney for elder rights at the SDA. “In some cases of emergency, you’ve got to call the cops first,” she said. All calls to the PSE are kept confidential, and anyone who is not a mandated reporter can make their report anonymously, she said. Reports made in good faith are immune from prosecution. “We generally don’t have people reporting who are lying,” she said.

Among the “red flags” that warrant a report to PSE are:
- Signs of physical injury such as bruises, burns or cuts with poor or no explanation
- Weight loss or dehydration
- Soiled, torn or inappropriate clothing
- Excessive trash, plumbing or heating problems, or lack of telephone in the home
- Shut-off notices, unpaid bills and un-cashed checks
- Sudden lifestyle changes or isolation from family and friends
- Withdrawal, depression, helplessness, sleeplessness

To report cases of suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation, call the state referral line toll-free at 1-888-385-4225. On holidays, weekends or after 4:30 p.m., call Infoline at 211. The number for out-of-state callers is 1-800-203-1234. All calls are confidential and may be made anonymously.


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