Last week we discussed the various types of elder abuse and some of the warning signs. Incidents of elder abuse are often under-reported for various reasons. Some victims of abuse may be unable to recognize or speak out about their abuse due to cognitive impairments such as dementia. Others may deny that what they are experiencing is abuse, feel embarrassed about what is happening, fear they won’t be believed if they speak out or that the abuse is somehow their own fault. Some may choose to endure the abuse rather than face the possibility of moving to a nursing home. When the abuser is a family member, the abused individual may not want the abuser to “get in trouble.” Lack of opportunity to notify others of the abuse or for others to recognize signs of abuse may occur when the abused individual is alienated from social contact. Fear of the abuse becoming worse also increases an individual’s reluctance to report it. People not directly involved in the situation may not report abuse due to an assumption that someone else already has or will report it, or that it is not their business. Protecting people who are less able to protect themselves is everybody’s business, and the physical, emotional, and financial costs to individuals, families, and society is enormous when abuse remains unreported.
What happens when suspected abuse is reported? Reports of elder abuse (for folks age 60 or older) are handled by the protective services division of each county’s Office of Aging. When a report of suspected abuse is made, an investigation is completed by a caseworker to determine if the elder person needs assistance. The urgency of the report will determine if immediate help is needed, otherwise the caseworker will visit the older person within 24-72 hours to personally determine the individual’s situation. If assistance would be beneficial for the older person, services will be offered. It is important to remember, however, that unless an individual lacks the capacity to make decisions, the individual may choose to refuse services, even if those services would be beneficial and resolve an actual or potentially abusive situation. All information concerning the report of abuse is kept confidential.
An important note for everyone to be aware of is that you do not have to have proof that abuse is occurring in order to report it. The task of proving abuse is the responsibility of professionals. Reports can be made anonymously, although it may be important for the investigators to have the name of someone to contact in order to learn more about the situation. Information to report would include your observations and the names of all of the persons involved in the situation (if known). Reporters of suspected abuse have legal protection from retaliation, discrimination, and civil or criminal prosecution.
The type of suspected abuse and where the elder person lives may determine the most appropriate agency to investigate. When in doubt about who to call to report suspected abuse, assistance can be obtained from the Pennsylvania Abuse Hotline, which is a statewide hotline that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The number is 1-800-490-8505. In Cumberland County, the telephone number for protective services is 717-240-6110 during business hours, or 717-243-4121 / 1-888-697-0371, ext. 4121 during the hours of 4:30 pm – 8:00 am. In situations where a business may be taking advantage of the elderly, the state Office of the Attorney General has the responsibility and authorization to take legal action against people and organizations that practice “unfair and deceptive conduct in the advertisement or sale of goods or services within the Commonwealth,” according to the PA state website).
For additional information and resources about elder abuse, call or visit the National Center on Elder Abuse at 1-855-500-3537/ www.ncea.aoa.gov. The center may also be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. An awareness of the extent of this problem, the risk factors, and the warning signs are the first steps toward battling elder abuse. Let’s not allow our society’s fear of growing old cause us to sweep this issue under the rug. Observe your elderly family members and neighbors, and offer assistance to individuals who serve as caregivers to help reduce their stress. Doing so may help save a life.
by Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN, Care Coordinator