The 'hidden problem' of elderly runaways

He arrived in Miami by bus one day, having suddenly left his home in California without telling anyone where he was going. Alone, confused, and frightened about what to do next or where to go, he was referred to a nearby social agency.

But he was no teen-age runaway; he was in his upper 80s. His daughter and son-in-law, with whom he had been living, often refused to talk to him. He wanted things to do around the house "to maintain his dignity."

"He was actually running away from home," says Rona Bartelstone, a Miami social worker familiar with the case.

Last year, another man -- in his upper 70s and living in a Philadelphia nursing home -- also ran away. He ended up in a Travelers Aid office in New York, where staffers listened to his concern: a running battle with his roommate at the nursing home. He said the staff of the home refused to do anything about it.

Travelers Aid arranged for his return to the same nursing home, but with a different room.

Each year at least 35,000 people in the United States aged 65 or older run away from where they are living, says Richard Gelula, national program consultant at the Chicago headquarters of Travelers Aid Association of America. Mr. Gelula's figures are based only on the number of runaway elderly who come into one of the 136 offices of Travelers Aid across the US.

Yet the problem of runaway elderly is little known to the public. One reason: They are seldom seen by most people.

Often they arrive at bus stations -- alone, bewildered, and vulnerable.

"Once they leave the bus station, they become prey to drug addicts, alcoholics, and transients," Mrs. Bartelstone says. "Some will sleep in the park -- or anywhere." They are "quite frequently" victims of muggings and other street crimes, she adds.

Those who make it to offices like Travelers Aid or Mrs. Bartelstone's United Family and Children Services in Miami are likely to get help.

In the case of the runaway Californian, Mrs. Bartelstone arranged for his return to his family -- and for the family to take counseling to try to improve the home atmosphere.

The New York Travelers Aid office offers hot lunches and counseling for such wanderers, among others.

For those runaways with families or a residence, getting them back home is usually the key, Mr. Gelula says.

According to Travelers Aid and other experts, elderly persons who run away may have lost their spouses or been rejected by their children, may have become fed up with the government for delaying their social security checks, or feel imprisoned in some situation.

Some "run away from their guardians or from hospitals," says Helen Lomax, a Travelers Aid supervisor in Washington. A small number of others run from families who abuse or neglect them, she adds.

Many end up in Washington because they think that is the place to iron out problems in getting their veteran's or social security checks, she says.

Others head for southern California, attracted by the climate and its Veterans Administration hospitals. The Travelers Aid office in Los Angeles is jammed most of the time, reports Phyllis Ehrenberg, assistant director of Travelers Aid there.

But she says one of the shortcomings of current efforts to help runaway elders is follow-up: Often no one is sure how the elderly person is doing until he or she shows up again seeking help.

As do her counterparts in New York, assistant director Ehrenberg sees many elderly runaways, especially men, who have no family to return to.

These "rootless" people include what some call "shopping bag ladies," who carry all their worldly possessions in bags and live in railroad stations or hallways of other public buildings, says a New York social worker. One man is known to have been on the road since 1959. He recently dropped in at the Center for Family Services in West Palm Beach, Fla., seeking bus fare to Tampa.

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