It is common, when discussing abuse, to think of victimized children, or mistreated spouses. The abuse of seniors is less publicized, but it is equally horrific.
According to Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of the Jewish Home Family, “the national estimate is between 3 1/2 and 5 million [elderly] victims each year,” and some studies indicate that 1 in 10 seniors have suffered some form of abuse.
To address this problem, in mid-July the Jewish Home will unveil SeniorHaven Elder Abuse Shelter. It will be the first such facility in New Jersey and the 12th such shelter in the United States. SeniorHaven will offer community education as well as emergency short-term shelter for victims.
Abuse takes many forms, including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and financial, Ms. Elliott said. It may also take the form of neglect. With elder abuse on the rise, SeniorHaven is sorely needed.
“Elder abuse is a societal problem,” she said. “Most of us have encountered it in our lives, professional or personal. It exists everywhere.”
It is “equal opportunity,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter what age or what religion. Socioeconomic status is also irrelevant,” she added, pointing to the case of actor Mickey Rooney, whose stepson took control of his life, effectively isolating him and stealing his assets.
While many seniors are subject to mistreatment, “most shelters are not seeing large numbers of victims,” Ms. Elliott said, noting that fewer than 10 percent of abused elders reach out for help. “People are reluctant to come in,” she said. In some cases, they may not be willing or able to sever their relationship with the abuser. In others, they may be embarrassed because the abuser is their child or grandchild.
Referrals to SeniorHaven will come from adult protective services, hospitals, emergency rooms, or other arms of the professional community offering physical or social services.
“If someone calls and says he is a victim, we will recommend that he call adult protective services or we will call for him,” Ms. Elliott said. “If they are in immediate danger, we tell them to call the police.”
She explained that when victims are identified by an appropriate agency “and come to us, they are provided with crisis stabilization and may stay 90 to 120 days at no charge. They’re admitted as normal patients in whatever setting.” If the victim has Medicaid or other forms of insurance, “we will try to bill and get reimbursement. But that’s not the objective.”
“From the day of admission, we begin planning for discharge to the least restrictive alternative,” she continued. Perhaps there is another child, who lives out of the area and has no idea about what’s going on. Or the agency might put the victim in touch with a pro bono lawyer who can work to remove the abuser from the victim’s home.
“It makes sense to provide emergency shelter in an existing facility for the elderly,” Ms. Elliott said. “All the services older adults need are available within our walls, from medical to physical therapy, social work, and pastoral care, to nutritional services. Equally important to us is the opportunity to educate the community about this issue.”
Raising awareness of elder abuse is vital. Often seniors are not believed when they report abuse.
“They may go into an emergency room and an adult child may say [to the doctor], ‘she’s so clumsy,’” she said. “There’s a credibility factor, and the risk goes up with age. The highest risk is for people over 85, for women, and for people who have dementia.”
Warning signs — clues that something is amiss — do exist, Ms. Elliott said. For example, if an older adult who usually attends synagogue stops coming, that may indicate social isolation. Other changes may include appearance, where, say, someone who is usually well-groomed suddenly appears disheveled.
Another scenario — older adults who habitually withdraw the same amount at the bank suddenly withdraw different amounts. Or family members come in to do the withdrawals.
“We train bank tellers,” Ms. Elliott said, noting that people in such positions are often well-placed to notice changes. Pharmacists, too, may be trained to observe differences in a senior’s patterns.
Before coming to New Jersey, the Jewish Home head created an elder abuse program at the Cedar Village Retirement Community in Ohio. “In Ohio, a beautician noticed an elderly woman wincing,” she said. “She had broken ribs.” Another senior — whose daughter held her power of attorney — suddenly stopped paying her rent. Apparently, her daughter had cleaned out her bank account.
According to a statement from the Jewish Home, “SeniorHaven is part of the SPRiNG Alliance, a network of regional elder abuse shelters and other similar service models …. Victims are offered a full range of healthcare and supportive services including an emergency residential shelter and a coordinated system of care that provides a safe harbor, emotional support, psychological counseling, healthcare, legal advocacy and representation for victims of elder abuse.”
Clients may be placed in different settings, depending on their needs and on available space. If space is not available at Jewish Home facilities, they might be housed at the Weinberg Center at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale.
The Jewish Home recently held a meeting to discuss the program with diverse community partners, including representatives of Jewish Family Service.
Leah Kaufman, executive director of JFS of North Jersey, said SeniorHaven “is an incredible resource for our clients.” Noting that the abuse she sees is primarily emotional and financial, she suggested that “Our clients might be more willing to leave abusive situations now because SeniorHaven is Jewish.”
Pointing out that many of her abused clients are hesitant to go to a shelter, she said, “We hope to work with the Jewish Home to help these clients find safe alternative living situations. It’s a win-win for the community.”