Elder abuse is when a person aged 65 or older experiences physical, emotional, or financial abuse. The Oregon Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations (OAAPI) found that there were more than 38,000 reports of possible abuse in 2014.
Rebecca Fetters, quality assurance and prevention coordinator at OOAPI, told Think Out Loud guest host Conrad Wilson on Wednesday that the higher number of investigations is partially a result of a larger elderly population. She also linked the higher numbers to an increased awareness about abuses inflicted against people 65 or older.
“I’d like to think in Oregon, it’s also because we are really trying to raise awareness and increase reporting as well,” said Fetters.
Paul Greenwood, the head of the elder abuse prosecution unit in the San Diego District Attorney’s office, also said that improved reporting requires working specifically with what he called “strategic reporters” to help them spot a possible case of abuse.
“Physicians, nurses, caregivers, financial institutions, notary publics, clergy, et cetera,” said Greenwood. “They need to be made more aware that this is going on, where to recognize it, and what to do when they see it.”
Greenwood works in one of just a handful of offices that specializes in elder abuse. He said one of the “classic cases” he sees is when a son steals money from his mother to pay for an addiction to drugs.
“And as a result of those addictions, he decides he’s going to get money from his mother, and he steals it,” said Greenwood. “And when she finds out, because he’s pawned her jewelry, he doesn’t like her confrontation and he hits her in the eye, and she ends up in the emergency room of the local hospital.”
This example illustrates how different types of abuse can go hand in hand. Greenwood pointed out that even financial abuses can cause indirect physical harm by causing very high levels of stress. He cited an instance where an abuser started a fake non-profit called “Senior Rescue” and scammed 28 seniors out of their life savings.
“The tragedy with these kinds of cases is that when an elderly person knows that their life savings have been gone, and their trust has been violated, often it can escalate into physical illnesses and depression, and ultimately, an early death,” said Greenwood.
These sorts of cases can make effective sentencing difficult. Greenwood argued that the pressure not to send non-violent offenders to prison actually lets these abusers off the hook too soon — even though their fraudulent activities caused real, physical harm to seniors.
“We need to change the mindset of the judiciary and help them understand even ‘non-violent’ crimes can be violent, because they can escalate to the point of depression, loneliness, and ultimately, physical illnesses for elders, even though they have not been harmed,” he said.
Fetters said that, in Oregon, authorities are trying a team-based approach to the problem by having groups of specialized investigators within the same four walls. For example, in her office alone, investigators look into abuses at state hospitals, at group homes, against the mentally disabled, and work with cases involving sexual exploitation.
“By virtue of having that all under one roof, we can really see trends developing,” she said. “We can really look at, initially, when we formed our investigation process, and learn from each other in terms of best practices and techniques.”
In addition to improving reporting, Greenwood also recommended that individual sons and daughters do a better job of checking up on their elderly relatives. He said that he calls his 92-year old mother every single day.
“In the last 18 months, I made the mistake of purchasing her a mini iPad, so I actually FaceTime her every day now,” he said. “And it’s so good to be able to visually see my 92-year-old mother, and to know, visually, if she’s doing OK.”
The state of Oregon has created a hotline for reporting abuse of children or adults. The hotline can be reached at 1-855-503-SAFE (7233).