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Elder abuse takes different forms, methods
Art deWerk

June is National Elder Abuse Awareness Month and June 15 specifically is "Elder Abuse Awareness Day." That such a month is dedicated to the issue of elder abuse awareness reveals an element of our society that of which we surely cannot be proud. Yet, the majority of people are unaware that such a problem exists, let alone have any idea of the prevalence of elder abuse. This is exactly why it is important to call attention to the issue. The problem is growing, rather than getting smaller, because the number of seniors in our society is increasing as a result of the baby boomers reaching retirement age and beyond. In fact, people over 85 years of age are now the fastest growing segment of society.

To describe senior citizens as "vulnerable" is a touchy subject. While humans tend to lose physical strength and flexibility, as well as a mental decline as they age, we have to remember that the people who are now the oldest among us are the ones who fought World War II and subsequent wars. They are the ones who made this nation the most powerful in the world through the industrial revolution. Our elderly have spent their lives building strong families and excelling in education. This generation, in my opinion, generated the true leaders that we can look up to. In their prime, they were the political leaders who, unlike too many we see today, were true to our country and the citizens they represented. To them, right and wrong was more clear-cut, and they were disinclined to "spin" their way out of mistakes in the way we see these days with so many politicians lying, misleading, withholding information and otherwise playing the moral relativism game. It seems to me that we could use a healthy dose of our older seniors coming back to lead this country out of the disastrous course that it is now on.

As of May, 2012, it was estimated that there were 40.3 million seniors (persons 65 and older) living in the United States and that number is growing rapidly. What defines a "senior" can vary depending on the context in which the person is viewed. Because people 65 or older can receive full Social Security benefits, the term "senior" is typically applied to that age group. Some schools of thought suggest that a person becomes a senior at age 60 or 62. Keep in mind that because of healthcare improvements and increased longevity, it is now common to view a 60 year old today as we did a 50 year old of the last decades.

Seniors are frequently the target of scams perpetrated by strangers. And sadly, a large percentage of seniors are victimized by people close to them. In many instances, their children, caregivers, relatives or others close to them are involved in efforts to take their money, especially as seniors lose their ability to think clearly. But in many cases, seniors are willing victims because they are doing what they can to keep family and friends close to them out of loneliness or because they are physically dependent on them. According to a report by the National Care Planning Council, "abusers may be spouses, family members, personal acquaintances, professionals in positions of trust, or opportunistic strangers who prey on the defenseless. Elder abuse comes in many different forms - physical, emotional, or financial abuse. Each one is devastating in its own right," explained 90-year-old veteran actor Mickey Rooney, in a March 2011 statement to the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "What other people see as generosity may, in reality, be the exploitation, manipulation, and sadly, emotional blackmail of older, more vulnerable members of the American public."

Some of the signs of elder abuse include physical injuries such as bruises, slap marks, cigarette burns or worse. Neglect, or when a caregiver fails to take care of a senior's personal needs or hygiene, is also a form of abuse. Malnutrition and lack of appropriate medical care should serve as causes for suspicion and sexual abuse is also not uncommon within the senior population.

In terms of financial victimization, the more common occurrences include altered wills and trusts that benefit the abuser (who is actually committing serious crimes), when the abuser borrows money that will never be paid back, transferal of property like homes or vehicles into the abuser's name, the inappropriate withdrawal of bank funds, and the list goes on. In my law enforcement capacity, I have seen occasions where attorneys and even physicians have taken advantage of a senior's financial resources, but more often than not, it is a family member or caregiver who has established close ties with a senior that is the most likely to take advantage of an elderly person who is unable to fully care for him or herself and/or make proper decisions about their finances and other assets.

In many countries there exists a culture of according the elderly great respect, not only as an acknowledgement of their increased potential vulnerability, but also for the accrued wisdom and experience that older people possess. They are looked up to and are asked to provide advice and assistance in decision-making. These kinds of societal features, of course, have their exceptions as with any human element, but as a cultural norm, places like Japan, China, many other Asian countries, India, Mexico and the Philippines revere their elderly with great respect and homage. This is not, as a rule, true in the United States where the elderly are treated essentially as any other age group. In fact, our society is more focused on young people and it seems to me that there is an emerging trend that suggests that younger people tend to see elderly people as irrelevant, disposable, and even as a burden. Of course, having that attitude only weakens this nation. Our elders possess the experience and knowledge that only a life fully lived can accrue. To overlook these important people is a gross mistake and it leaves us prone to making errors that can otherwise be avoided. To abuse or victimize these people is an even greater mistake and wholly unacceptable. We would do well to treat our elderly better, be aware of signs of abuse, and protect them from those who would victimize them. Elder Abuse Month 2013 is not just another public awareness gimmick. It gets to the heart of who we are as a people and as a nation.