Elder Abuse on Rise; Protection Limited

ONE elderly woman padlocked her bedroom door because her son stole her insulin needles to shoot durgs. Another woman's son took her on a cross-country trip and left her on a park bench in Idaho. After taking $30,000 of her money, he's still asking for more - and she's still giving it. These stories, presented at a congressional hearing on abuse of the elderly held here Sept. 24, are typical of the kinds of abuse many elderly face in their own homes from their own children, say protective workers.

Elder abuse is up 50 percent, from 1 million incidents in 1980 to 1.5 million today, according to a survey by the House Select Committee on Aging. Because elder abuse is underreported, experts estimate the true figures to be higher.

At the same time, says Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who chaired the hearing, ``The primary source of federal funding for elder abuse prevention, detection, and treatment, has been cut nearly two-thirds in the last decade by direct cuts and inflation.''

States are pinched, too. Louisiana shut down its elder-protection office because of a lack of funding.

Several elements are needed to improve protection for the nation's elderly, experts say. These include: a comprehensive program that links elder-protection workers and home-care workers to improve reporting of suspected abuse and delivery of services; emergency housing appropriate for elderly people; respite care for care givers; legal referrals; and the ability to appoint guardians for elderly people judged incompetent to handle their own affairs and who face risk of abuse. But even when services are available, abused elders often are too afraid to use them.

The real problem of elder abuse, says Rosalie Wolf, executive director of the Institute on Aging, the Medical Center of Central Massachusetts, is ``less a problem of a care giver overcome by stress and more of one of adult children who are unable to cope, who are dependent on the elderly parent for money and housing.''

Out of the first federal hearings on the subject 12 years ago came the recommendation that the federal government pattern elder-abuse legislation after the successful Child Abuse Act. But since then, no action has been taken, Kennedy says.

``Elder abuse today is where child abuse was 20 years ago in the extent of public understanding,'' says Toshio Tatara, director of the National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse, in Washington.

That is changing. The House and Senate allocated $3 million and $6 million respectively to help the states with their elder-protection services - the first federal appropriation for elder-protection services since the problem was identified. Observers say that getting new money in this deficit-conscious Congress reflects a growing awareness of the magnitude of the problem.

Twenty-seven states have elder-abuse hot lines. Forty-three have laws that require police, health workers, and social workers to report cases of elder abuse; the other seven have voluntary-reporting statutes.

``My own thinking is you'll have as much abuse as the public will tolerate, and it's looking like the public is saying: `That's enough,' '' says Lee Pearson, assistant manager of criminal justice services for the American Association of Retired People.

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