Officials draw awareness to problem of elder abuse
About 120 cases alleging abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable and elderly adults are investigated each month in Lee County, with more than 3,000 investigations conducted statewide.
With Tuesday marking World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, members of the Lee Elder Abuse Prevention Partnership held a gathering at Centennial Park in Fort Myers to raise awareness of the issue, to educate the public on the warning signs of abuse and to promote a respectful environment for elders.
“It’s important because cases of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation go unreported,” said Dotty St. Amand, executive director of the Alvin A. Dubin Alzheimer’s Resource Center.
The center established the Lee Elder Abuse Prevention Partnership in early February with a federal grant awarded by the National Center on Elder Abuse, National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. The coalition’s goal is to create local partnerships that promote awareness of abuse, neglect and exploitation of older adults and provide services, advocacy and support.
According to officials, people over the age of 65 make up almost a quarter of the population of Lee County and 12 percent are over the age of 75. For every case of elder abuse, there are about five more that go unreported.
“I think that people are hesitant to report situations like this,” St. Amand said. “The older people feel shame that they’ve been taken advantage of. I think they feel foolish that they allowed that to happen. So I think fear and shame play a role in it.”
She added that some people do not know how to pay attention to the early warning signs, and sometimes, the senior is threatened by the perpetrator.
“We just want to make sure that people are aware that it goes on in this community,” Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said. “Just to get the word out there that this does happen here.”
According to St. Amand, the abuse can come in several forms. An example of emotional abuse could be adult children threatening to keep grandchildren away unless the elder adult provides money or even the withholding of care, such as not helping a senior with things they need like help preparing meals.
Financial exploitation of elder adults is also a concern of authorities.
“They’re very easy to be preyed upon by people who are scam artists or who even act like they are their friends,” she said.
Physical violence also is a form of abuse, along with self-neglect. According to St. Amand, as older adults experience age-related illnesses and changes in physical abilities, the risk for isolation and potential self-neglect increases.
Residents are asked to pay attention in their neighborhoods. If an elderly neighbor has a routine schedule but has not been seen in a few days, or if things seems different, check on that person and talk to them. There could be early warning signs of self-neglect or an abusive situation, she explained.
“A lot of people dismiss the early warning signs,” St. Amand said.
Relatives should check on loved ones who have a caregiver or reside in an assisted living facility. Undertrained staff can lead to instances of abuse. Pay attention to if the senior complains and observe the living conditions.
“Be aware of what’s going on in the lives of your family members or neighbors,” she said.
Gillespie added that a caregiver should undergo a background check.
“Make sure that you pick someone you feel comfortable leaving a vulnerable adult with,” she said.
If people suspect abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult over the age of 65 is occurring, they can contact the state abuse hotline at (800) 962-2873.
“Call us,” Gillespie said. “We’re the ones who really can do something.”
DCF can provide referrals to Meals on Wheels and to other local, community agencies, she explained. The agency also runs the food stamp, Medicaid and cash assistance programs, and it can remove seniors from a home to place them in a more appropriate residence.
“This is great for us to call awareness to the issue today, but it’s really important for our community to know it’s an every day effort,” St. Amand said. “And not just focus on it one day out of the year.”
The Dubin Alzheimer’s Resource Center’s office is at 10051 McGregor Boulevard, Suite 101, Fort Myers. For more information, call 437-3007.