Elder abuse is all around us, and it's a crime
Two weeks ago, I was called by a local church about a vulnerable senior they were concerned about. They had not seen Helen -- not her real name -- for a long time, and they knew her son was in Florida taking care of his father.
Helen, 92, was being "cared for" by her daughter, a middle-aged woman with a serious mental health disorder that included paranoia and fits of violence. When I went to interview Helen, the daughter kept interrupting, telling her mother not to sign my HIPAA release or tell me anything about her history. She was suspicious and acted very aggressively toward me. I stood firm, but Helen finally said it was not a good day to talk and we would try again later.
I spoke with the woman's son in Florida, and he confirmed police had been called several times and his sister hospitalized, but she was always released after a few days. I knew this was not going to end well. A week later, I received a frantic call from the son. The police had again been called after his sister physically assaulted their mother, who weighs all of 90 pounds.
Helen spent the weekend in the hospital recovering from injuries, getting dialysis and being evaluated by Adult Protective Services, which is painfully understaffed. The investigator teared up when he heard my client say, "Yes, it is true, she punched me and it is not the first time that it happened. I just don't understand how someone can hit a little 92-year-old woman like me."
The prevalence of elder abuse is hard to estimate because it is underreported, but according to the National Council on Aging, approximately one in 10 Americans age 60 or older have experienced some form of elder abuse -- be it physical, emotional, psychological or financial.
While federal laws serve as a baseline for the protection of older adults, most enforcement falls under state laws, which vary widely in their definitions of elder abuse, their additional protections and their penalties. In Florida, for example, elder abuse can be a first-degree felony resulting in up to 30 years in prison.
Under Illinois law, elder abuse or neglect refers to the mistreatment of a person 60 years of age or older with physical, sexual or emotional abuse or willful confinement. Such criminal neglect is a Class 2 felony if the neglect results in death; the prison term is three to 14 years. Financial exploitation of an elder or disabled individual can carry a penalty of up to 15 years.
Certain professions, including mine, are required to report elder abuse. However, anyone can, in good faith, report suspected elder abuse by calling the statewide, 24-hour Adult Protective Services Hotline at (866) 800-1409 (TTY: 888-206-1327). I think this is one way we can all take steps to show we care about the elders in our communities.
If you're worried about repercussions, the state Adult Protective Services Act protects those who make good-faith reports from criminal or civil liability. Anonymous reports are accepted, and your identity cannot be disclosed without your written permission or by a court order.
But, clearly, the system didn't work like it's supposed to for Helen.
I have taken steps with the police, APS and attorneys to file for an emergency temporary guardianship through my nonprofit, Seniors Alone Guardianship and Advocacy Services, or SAGAS (www.Seniorsalone.org). I would become her guardian, partnering with her son to protect this dear, frail woman.
Stories like this tell me that, in many cases, elders are invisible in society because they no longer matter. How cultures view and treat their elderly is closely linked to their most prized values and traits. We Americans -- who prize work and independence -- seem to have little use for those who can't work and become dependent. Contrast that with, say, Korea and China, where children have the duty and the honor to respect and care for their elders.
I wish I could help more people like Helen: low income, falling through the cracks, with no one to be their champion and protector. That is what nurse advocates do, and I think it is the purest, most beautiful form of nursing there is. One person at a time, we make a difference.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.