Today, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to the National Council on Aging, one in 10 Americans who are 60 and older experience some form of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial abuse.
It’s a serious problem that Dr. Leana S. Wen, health commissioner for Baltimore City, says knows no boundaries.
“Elder abuse occurs in every community in every city,” she said. “Elder abuse is a medical issue and a public health issue because it’s a matter of life and death. Abused elders are at a 300 percent increased risk of death.”
On Tuesday, June 13, Dr. Wen spoke to more than 80 people at “SAFEguarding Our Seniors,” an event hosted by CHANA, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which provides education, outreach, legal services, counseling and other services to victims of abuse.
Jmore was a co-sponsor of the event.
Founded in 2013, SAFE, which stands for Stop Abuse of Elders, is a CHANA program. “The importance of education and raising awareness cannot be overstated,” Dr. Wen said to the audience of CHANA supporters at the DLA Piper, Marbury Building in Mount Washington.
Dr. Wen drew on her experiences as an emergency room doctor, noting that she was not taught about elder abuse in medical school.
“It’s something I learned for myself the hard way,” she said. “I didn’t get the training to know this was something that happened. Once you see it, you do know it. But that is how I learned about elder abuse, by seeing patients who were abused and seeing the horrific signs of physical abuse.”
Dr. Wen emphasized that elder abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial or verbal.
“There are these unmentionables that we have trouble speaking about, but they are also the unmentionables that we have to talk about,” she said. “Sexual abuse for elders — we don’t want to talk about it, but we have to because it’s happening. And financial abuse and fraud, we shouldn’t have to talk about it but it is happening, so we have to talk about it.”
The conventional wisdom that most elder abuse occurs at institutions is a misperception, Dr. Wen said. “Studies show up to 90 percent of perpetrators are family members,” she said. “That means that elder abuse is happening right here in our homes and in our communities every day.”
Most elder abuse cases go unreported. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, only one in 14 cases is actually reported.
That’s where SAFE comes in, to serve as a venue for victims and others to report abuse, says CHANA Director Nancy Aiken.
“SAFE goes beyond reacting upon what has already happened,” she said. “SAFE is working for more than just the absence of abuse; we are working for justice in our world — justice in access, health care and the criminal justice system. Justice in all arenas where obstacles can prevent elders from living with dignity and without fear.”
SAFE is the first elder abuse program in Maryland for victims who do not qualify for adult protective services, and the first domestic violence victim services program focusing on older adults.
“SAFE is vital to the community because it has stepped into the void and provided resources for victims of elder abuse,” said Liz Ritter, a former Baltimore City prosecutor and chair of the “SAFEguarding Our Seniors” event. “We know that every person deserves to be safe and feel safe.”
During the program, a SAFE client shared a story about her cousin who was neglected while living at home with her husband.
“When I went to see my cousin she was pitifully thin, dirty and horribly confused,” said the client. “The house wasn’t very clean and it was stifling because the air conditioning wasn’t working. I actually saw maggots in the refrigerator with the rotten food.”
The client took her cousin to a hospital, where she was given the phone number for SAFE. With SAFE’s help, the client’s cousin was taken care of and moved into a skilled nursing facility.
“SAFE has truly been a blessing,” the client said. “Thanks to SAFE, my dear cousin will live and die with the dignity she deserves.”
During the two-hour program, the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, which is a SAFE partner, received the first annual SAFEguarding Our Seniors Award. Abba David Poliakoff, incoming chair of Levindale’s board of directors, accepted the award on behalf of his institution.
He said he learned a lot about elder abuse during Tuesday’s program. “I was absolutely shocked and it really is an eye-opener,” said Poliakoff, an attorney. “I think more people in the community need to be aware of it because there is a lot to be done.”
Dr. Wen called on audience members to look beyond raw numbers and contemplate the human dimension and toll of elder abuse.
“The work that we are doing is not about statistics, although the statistics are quite shocking,” she said. “It’s about people. It’s about people who have given so much to our community and our society. We cannot afford to be indifferent to the elder abuse that is happening all around us.
“This is a matter of dignity, humanity, respect, it’s a matter of life and death,” she said. “It’s a matter of compassion and justice, and we must all do more and continue to work to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and our city.”
For information about CHANA and SAFE, visit chanabaltimore.org/elderabuse/ .
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Top Photo of Dr. Leana S. Wen, health commissioner of Baltimore City, provided by CHANA (Stephen Wilcoxson)
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