June 15th marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This day was designated by the United Nations to encourage the people of the world to voice their objections to the abuse of older adults and insist that it comes to an end. The Council on Aging of Buncombe County hopes that World Elder Abuse Awareness Day prompts you to have important conversations about elder abuse with those close to you.
The facts are startling. The National Council on Aging estimates that one in every ten adults over the age of sixty has experienced some form of elder abuse…and in sixty percent of the cases, the perpetrator of the abuse is a family member. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, along with financial exploitation of an older adult can be difficult to understand. Anyone can be a victim, regardless of age, educational background, or income.
How could anyone harm or exploit a cherished loved one or those members of our society we were taught to honor and respect? There is no honor in financially defrauding someone of their life savings. There is certainly no excuse for sexual assault and abuse. And yet, these cases happen repeatedly in all settings, both public and private. Among the most vulnerable are those who may have increased physical and cognitive impairments; these older adults often reside in institutionalized care settings and may have challenges with comprehension, communication, and overall functioning.
Elder abuse often occurs behind closed doors, hidden among family dynamics and shrouded in shame. As the Elder Justice Navigator for the Council on Aging of Buncombe County, I know how difficult it can be to talk about elder abuse. However, lack of comfort about this important topic should not stop us from educating and equipping ourselves with knowledge and understanding. This awareness is our best offense in preventing and reducing abuse in our community. Talking about elder abuse with your relatives can foster an environment of openness and awareness.
If you have witnessed or suspect abuse of a loved one, you should immediately report it to the Department of Social Services (Adult Protective Services), or to law enforcement. If you say nothing, you are not only perpetuating abuse, you may also be violating the law. North Carolina law mandates reporting suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of an older or disabled adult to the Department of Social Services. Reporting suspected abuse to the proper authorities can save a life.
Financial abuse of older adults has become more frequent as our use of technology increases. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that $700 million was lost in 2019 to fraudsters targeting older adults. Have you received an email from a person from another country who needs money to travel to the United States and offers a handsome repayment when he/she arrives? Have you answered a phone call and heard someone claiming to work for the IRS threaten you with legal action or arrest if you did not follow instructions and pay up? According to the FBI, “Criminals target [older adults] because they tend to be more trusting, polite, and financially secure. They are also less likely to report a crime because of shame or embarrassment.”
Fortunately, support systems are in place for those struggling to find assistance, and initiatives exist to reduce instances of abuse in Buncombe County. Adult Protective Services offers a phone line to take reports of abuse and exploitation at all times. The Elder Justice Coalition, comprised of multiple agencies, including law enforcement, Adult Protective Services, legal services, the Council on Aging, victim services agencies, and court officials is another important initiative working to end elder abuse in our region. The Elder Justice Coalition, developed as a part of Buncombe County’s Aging Plan, seeks to prevent abuse and neglect of older adults and increase awareness of financial exploitation.
Also, thanks to recent work by the North Carolina Attorney General and organizations such as AARP, older adults are finding it easier to recognize scam calls and to ask for help if they are unsure of something they have received via email or voice mail. However, we still have work to do to reduce the shame associated with being exploited. Reporting your experience can help save others from the same scam by giving local agencies a head start in warning the unsuspecting public.
If you are wondering what you can do to help, the answers are simple:
1. If you see something, say something.
Report suspicious activity you have witnessed to Adult Protective Services or to law enforcement. If the abuse has occurred in a nursing facility, contact Land of Sky Regional Council and ask to speak to an ombudsman.
2. Check on your elderly loved ones, neighbors, and friends regularly, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has increased our time indoors and away from those we love and trust.
3. Make it a priority to allow for open communication about elder abuse within your own family and community.
By: Niki Duff, Elder Justice Navigator at the Council on Aging of Buncombe County