Abuse of older adults is often a hidden secret

“I felt trapped, scared, used, and frustrated. Above all, I felt helpless.” You probably heard those words on the evening news a few weeks ago. They were spoken by Mickey Rooney as he sat before a U.S. Senate committee and shook his fist in the air, expressing his frustration and anger about the alleged exploitation of his finances by one of his stepsons. Because of Rooney’s lifetime of celebrity, this story momentarily captured the attention of the nation, and at least briefly cast light on what is, to a very large extent, a hidden secret in our society – the abuse of older adults.

In many respects, Mickey Rooney’s experience is typical. According to information provided by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) , almost 90 percent of the time it is a close family member or other trusted caregivers who intentionally take advantage of a frail and vulnerable older person. The abuse may, as in Rooney’s case, be exploitation of one’s finances, but elder abuse may also be exhibited through physical harm, emotional and psychological mistreatment, neglect of care, and even sexual abuse.

The reason elder abuse can be described as a hidden secret in society is that the majority of cases go unreported. According to NCOA, experts who have studied the issue believe that for every case of elder abuse that is reported, as many as 4 to 5 additional cases go unreported each year. The reasons for not reporting vary, but often it is the older person who refuses to file a report because of personal embarrassment.

They feel foolish admitting that some one has bilked them out of their money, which often is tens of thousands of dollars. The abuse may also go unreported because the older person does not have the mental capacity to report what has happened to them, or they are fearful that harm will come to themselves or other loved ones, based on threats made by the perpetrator.

Fortunately, the vast majority of family members provide loving care for their older relatives, and often this care is provided at great personal sacrifice by the caregiver. Sometimes the abuse or neglect is not intended. A caregiver may lash out in anger brought on by the stress of providing care 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with little or no relief. When such instances are identified, it is as important to provide help for the caregiver as it is to assure that the older person is protected and safe from future risk of abuse.

Abuse by exploitation may grab the headlines, but physical and emotional abuse, and neglect of care are more common. Physical abuse may occur by shoving, jerking, or even slapping an older person who is having difficulty complying with instructions, such as an older person suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Emotional abuse may be exhibited by yelling or screaming, or through confinement, such as locking an older person in a bedroom for hours at a time.

Neglect of an older person can occur in many ways. Examples include providing a poor or improper diet, not obtaining medical care when needed, and failure to provide basic hygiene care, such as bathing and changing bed linens. Whether intentional or brought on by stress, such abuse is never acceptable.

All of us have a moral responsibility to report suspected cases of abuse of both older adults and children, and some of us have a legal responsibility to do so under Ohio law. In Clermont County the number to call to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect of children or older adults is (513) 732-7173. Clermont Senior Services conducts the investigations of suspected cases of elder abuse. Often we are able to resolve these situations by providing services for the older person and support for the caregiver, such as respite care, adult day care, or participation in a support group.

If you believe you have personally been the victim of abuse, or you are concerned that an older person is being abused, please call (513) 732-7173. Don’t let a situation you are aware of continue to be one of those unreported cases. Your identity will not be disclosed.

George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.