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It’s Time to Get Serious About Elder Abuse

Events tied to an awareness day point out the urgent needs

June 15 marked the 10th anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. In Washington, D.C., the occasion included high profile activities: a Presidential Proclamation, a special White House Conference on Aging event on elder justice and a first-time Global Summit on elder abuse. (More on these in a moment.)

The day itself, inspired by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, brings attention to a rapidly growing national and international problem — abuse, neglect and exploitation of older adults.

In the United States, the Department of Justice estimates that one in 10 people over 60 is a victim of elder abuse. This translates into nearly 6 million cases a year.

Our focus must be directed to helping the victims and to prevent more older adults from being victimized.

Abuse takes various forms, with neglect and financial exploitation rising fastest. Studies indicate that victims of financial fraud lose an estimated $3 billion a year. (And one recent report suggests the figure might be at least 10 times that amount.)

The majority of elder abuse is committed by family members. The average victim is a woman between the ages of 75 and 80 living alone; almost half of women over 75 in the U.S. now live alone.

Elder abuse “is a public health crisis that crosses all socioeconomic lines and is an affront to human rights around the world,” said President Obama in his Proclamation.

A Report From the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Events

At the Global Summit, speakers addressed aspects of elder abuse such as research, victim services, the role of Adult Protective Services and needed advocacy for further change in policies. Relatives of two high-profile victims, Brooke Astor and Hugette Clark, provided valuable first-hand testimony on their experiences with elder abuse.

The White House Conference on Aging event focused on initiatives taken by the Obama Administration related to elder justice, work that began with the 2010 passage of the landmark Elder Justice Act as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s an overview of initiatives discussed:

  • An interagency group called the Elder Justice Coordinating Council identifies the many federal agencies that work in elder abuse prevention and coordinates their activities. The Council has issued recommendations for further legislative and regulatory action.
  • An Office of Elder Justice and Adult Protective Services has been established in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, meaning the front line in fighting elder abuse has its first-time federal home.
  • The U.S. Justice Department last year released its Elder Justice Roadmap Project designed to focus attention on aspects of elder abuse prevention with recommendations for future action around brain health, among other topics.
  • Under the landmark Dodd-Frank Act, an Office of Older Americans was established in the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and it has spearheaded important educational and awareness-raising work to protect older adults from financial abuse.
  • Finally, the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, which will be held on July 13, has made elder justice one of its four priorities. Some further administration initiatives around elder justice are expected to be announced at the conference.

What We Need Next

Though progress has been made, our national commitment to fight elder abuse is lagging. The Elder Justice Act only received its first direct funding from Congress in 2014 at a measly $4 million. This has thwarted the ability to fully implement the key provisions of the law, including providing dedicated funding to Adult Protective Services, making the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program stronger and providing direct funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

The Older Americans Act, which includes funding for elder abuse prevention, is almost five years late in being renewed. The Social Services Block Grant Program, which is the only current source of funding for Adult Protective Services, is always a target to be cut in budget discussions.

Additionally, of all the funding provided to key federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute on Aging, Office of Violence Against Women, Administration on Aging, National Institute of Justice and the Office of Victims of Crime, only 0.598 percent of their budgets, on average, are used for elder abuse prevention. (At most, 2.5 percent is used.) That has to be improved.

One prime opportunity may exist through a $1.6 billion increase provided by Congress to the Victims of Crime Act (funds collected through fines versus actual appropriations). Having a dedicated portion of these funds going to elder abuse crime victims will be a major step forward in improving our federal response.

Achieve Justice By Fighting Abuse

Our nation has a proud commitment to combating other types of abuse. It began more than 40 years ago with the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which has resulted in more than $7 billion in funding for these programs. We have the important Violence Against Women Act, which recently observed its 20th anniversary.

Yet, for reasons that puzzle advocates like myself, our society, especially Congress, is much slower to grasp and respond to elder abuse. That can be due to everything from ideology to ageism. However, this must be resolved quickly.

Elder justice is only achieved when elder abuse is prevented. This requires direct investments in data collection, Adult Protective Services, ombudsman services, public awareness campaigns and locally-based prevention activities. Prevention saves programs like Medicaid and Medicare in significant ways, since victims of elder abuse often end up in hospitals or nursing homes. We must also have an immediate focus on services for victims of elder abuse, such as legal aid and emergency housing.

In this year, when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act, we marvel at what these programs have done to improve the quality of life for older adults. But elder abuse is a real and potent threat to this quality of life. And it, too, warrants a commitment of federal resources and leadership. Forms of elder abuse like financial abuse truly are the leading crimes of the 21st century and we need to confront them.

It is time for us to get serious as a nation about elder abuse. Our focus must be directed to helping the victims and to prevent more older adults from being victimized. That is elder justice.

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