Protecting older adults from abuse and neglect

George Brown
It is difficult to understand why anyone would abuse or neglect an older person but it happens everyday.

At least a half million Adult Protective Service referrals are made each year in the United States to investigate alleged cases of the neglect, abuse, and exploitation of older adults.

Experts say this is only half of the story. Some believe that at least as many incidences of adult abuse and neglect go unreported. This pushes the possible rate of abuse and neglect of older adults in America to well over one million each year.

You may be surprised to learn that about 175 of those referrals occur right here in Clermont County. And, if the experts are right, this means that the actual number of alleged cases of abuse and neglect of older adults in Clermont County each year is about 350, or almost one everyday.

The majority of cases of adult neglect are deemed “self neglect.” Self neglect occurs when older people makes choices, whether deliberate or unintended, to neglect their own personal care and living environment, thereby placing themselves at health and safety risk. No one wants to see an older person fall into poor health and live in an unsafe environment, but the principle which must be respected when investigating these cases is the individual’s right to self determination. Sometimes the older person is of sound mind (deemed legally competent by the court), and therefore has a right to live as he or she chooses, regardless of how troubling this may be to family members or neighbors.

When we receive referrals of self neglect, Clermont Senior Services is often able to intervene with services like meals-on-wheels, home care, and transportation to the doctor to improve the quality of life of the older person.

This is a good example of applying two additional key principles. First, intervention should always be limited to only that degree of involvement required to improve the older person’s situation, and secondly, this intervention should occur in the least restrictive environment possible. Ideally, this is where the person presently lives.

As is true with the abuse and neglect of children, the abuse and neglect of older adults is almost always at the hand of a family member, close friend, or other caregiver. Sometimes the abuse or neglect of an older person occurs when a caregiver is overwhelmed from providing 24-hour per day care for a long period of time with little or no support from others.

The abuse or neglect may be in the form of hitting the older person in a moment of anger, or locking him or her in a bedroom. In these cases the appropriate intervention may be as simple as providing respite care in the home, or having the at risk older person attend an adult day care center 2-3 days per week. Both services are provided by Clermont Senior Services.

Exploitation of an older person’s resources is almost always by family members who spend the older person’s Social Security check or savings on their own wants rather than for the care of the older person. From time to time we also receive referrals where an older person has been the victim of a telephone scam or other fraud. Intervention in these cases requires involvement by the police, and sometimes even the FBI.

Approximately 75 times each year we encounter situations where it appears that an older person is no longer mentally competent to make decisions for him or herself. In such cases a higher level of intervention may be required in the form of guardianship and possibly nursing home placement. The court is appropriately cautious in exercising the use of state law for this level of intervention because doing so removes the individual’s right of self determination. But this level of intervention is sometimes necessary.

Fortunately, in all but a few cases a capable family member is available to serve as guardian and can care for their older loved one at home with supportive services provided by Clermont Senior Services.

Many other examples of abuse and neglect of older adults could be cited, such as severe and deliberate neglect, serious physical abuse, and even sexual abuse.

Professionals such as social workers, safety officials, and medical personnel are required by law to report suspected cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older adults. All of us have a moral responsibility to do so.

In Clermont County the hotline number to call is the same as for reporting the abuse and neglect of children. This number is (513) 732-7173. Referrals are received at this number and then routed to Clermont Senior Services for investigation.

Keep in mind that you can make a referral anonymously. And, it is better to make a referral that turns out to be unsubstantiated than to ignore a situation where an older person’s safety and well-being may truly be at risk.

Adult Protective Services is one of the lesser known programs supported by the Senior Services Levy. I’m asking you to help us maintain this vital program by voting for the Senior Services Levy on Nov. 8. It is a renewal levy and will not raise taxes.

George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.