Combatting Ageism with NVRDC

June 15th, might have seemed like just another muggy summer day to many District residents and commuters, but for some of us who work on elder justice it was a very important day indeed. It was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD).

The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations first launched WEAAD a little over a decade ago, in an effort to unite communities around the world in raising awareness about elder abuse. WEAAD is in support of the UN’s International Plan of Action acknowledging the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue.

For the past three years, Network for Victim of Recovery of DC, in conjunction with its partners on the District’s Coordinated Training & Response for Older Victims (DC TROV) team have celebrated the day in DC with proclamations, awareness events, and training sessions. This year, DC TROV joined forces with DC Office on Aging Elder Abuse Prevention Committee (EAPC) in hosting with events at senior wellness centers throughout the city. As DC’s Elder Justice AmeriCorp Legal Fellow, I spent the day visiting senior centers throughout the city and enjoying providing outreach to older residents.

If you are reading this, you may wonder how does all of this affect you in your day-to-day life? Some might respond, “It doesn’t.”  Minding one’s business is a motto some live their whole lives by, but when it comes to stopping elder abuse in our community, this motto can be deadly.  For a lot of older adults who are victimized by adult children, caregivers or people they trust, help never comes when we are minding our business

So what if she was mean to her daughter growing up and now her daughter strikes back?   

So what if I haven’t seen him at church in a few days?

It’s okay if an older adult’s caretaker ignores her requests because she asks so frequently. 

How many times does a person really need something to drink?  Maybe they are just suffering from dementia. (Note: Not every older adult suffers from dementia. I cannot say it enough, dementia is not guaranteed with aging!)

One in 10 older District residents have experienced some type of abuse, but that’s only part of the picture: experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, as many as 23.5 cases go unreported.

Victimization often leads to an earlier death, especially in cases where the senior continues to live with their abuser. Those we trust the most are often the abusers; 90% of perpetrators are adult children or spouses. Unfortunately, those who live in nursing homes are not immune either. I asked the DC Long Term Care State Ombudsman, Mark Miller about his experience seeing abuse across the district and it is as pervasive as one could think. 

"Abuse continues to be an all too real experience for many residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.  In 2015, ombudsmen across the country responded to nearly 16,000 complaints of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, an 11% increase from 2014.  While that number may seem staggering, many more thousands of incidents of abuse and neglect go unreported and unaddressed each year.”

Many of us have statistics fatigue – we are overwhelmed by data on gun violence, sexual abuse, and other horrible crimes. As DC’s Elder Justice AmeriCorp Legal Fellow, I advocate for older adults who are victims of financial exploitation, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.  It is my job to care, and it is my duty that those statistics don’t become just another number. 

However, if that is not your job that is okay too. We are overwhelmed with tons of tragic information now making it hard to conceptualize many statistics, but what is easy to conceptualize is seeing your client unable to access all their important documents.  It is easy to notice when an older adult feels timid going places by themselves or asking permission to go places. None of these descriptions alone scream abuse. Abuse can show differently in many people and can be physical, psychological, or even financial.

I propose to everyone, myself included, that our first inclination is to be aware of possible abuse, listen closely to your “spider senses” tingling, and remember that one in ten seniors are being abused and so few are getting the help they need. We should each become aware of some typical signs of elder abuse, stay alert, and look out for our neighbors.

For instance, look around for indicators if you see a senior in your life, neighborhood, church or social circles struggling. Asking yourself: what caused that mood change? Are the two older adult partners dependent on one another? Does the older adult child let their parent speak?  If you suspect neglect, then it is perfectly normal to ask if they have the supports they need. Do they feel they get enough food to eat? What could you use more of? Do you have enough visitors? Do you feel like people think about you?

If these questions feel invasive, it’s fine. Answer them in your head, and if you don’t have the answers, it is always okay as a human being to check-in with another in private.  There are plenty of tools (also here) to help you be a good support for the seniors around you.  

So what if you do find out that a senior you know is being abused? The most important thing you can do is to make sure the person feels supported, encouraged and knows that they are not at fault.  Encourage them by offering a place to go or perhaps watch their grandchildren if they need a break. Plan social outings to separate them from the abuser.

Older victims seeking help can contact the DC Victim Hotline at 1-844-4HELPDC. This is confidential and available 24/7 to those who might want to talk it over with a trained advocate. Concerned friends and neighbors can also turn to that hotline for advice.

While we are on this subject, it is crucial that we start with believing the older adult.  In American culture, unfortunately, older adults are depicted as senile, oblivious and depressed.  It is pervasive in the film industry and reflected in our TV shows and that impacts the way we interact with older adults in our lives.  It also impacts their knowledge of self.  So, start your interaction with older adults by assuming that they are telling the truth and let them know that you believe their truth.

"Combating ageism is key to improving how we respond to the problem of elder abuse in the District. The way our society is structured today fails to keep people connected to the community at all stages of life. Seniors are "othered" and placed in a category and physical location away from the rest of society. This breeds isolation, which in turns creates conditions ripe for perpetrators to abuse, neglect, and exploit free from fear of detection and intervention by Adult Protective Services, victim advocates, and ultimately law enforcement and prosecution.”  -NVRDC’s Elder Justice Coordinator and leader for the DC Training and Response team for Older Victims (DC TROV) Merry O’Brien.

Remember that it is your business when your community is at harm. Merry eloquently points out the root of this issue, challenging what we believe about aging:

To combat elder abuse we need to be committed to ensure DC is "Age-Friendly." This means that no matter our age, we are all treated as full members of the community with equal opportunities to participate in community life. We can all help break down isolation by challenging our ageist beliefs, questioning our own fears about aging, and reaching out to senior neighbors to offer friendship. This is the first and most important way we can all join the fight against elder abuse in DC."