On April 6, Elmwood Park police discovered the bodies of Michael Juskin, 100, and his wife, Rosalia, 88. The man had killed his sleeping wife with an ax and then committed suicide.
To the women of the Bergen County organization Saafe (Save Abused and Frail Elderly), there was a tragedy within this tragedy: Police had been called to the Juskin home on previous occasions but failed to alert the state’s Adult Protective Services agency.
“It really points up the need for communication, because any one discipline cannot handle the problem alone,” said Saafe member Dorothy Kaplan of Fort Lee, speaking ahead of United Nations-designated World Elder Abuse Day on June 15.
Greater coordination must be encouraged among all those who deal with the elderly, from nurses and social workers to police, Ms. Kaplan continued.
According to the latest figures available, from 2012, people 60 or older accounted for five percent of reported domestic-violence victims in New Jersey and 18 percent of domestic murders — seven out of 38 that year.
It is more difficult to quantify the non-physical abuse of the elderly.
“There is a lot of education that needs to be done to raise awareness and develop new procedures,” Ms. Kaplan said. “When we started about 10 years ago, there was no communication between groups that worked with seniors. Adult Protective Services would get a call, but there was a gap between them and legal services. There was no law mandating professionals to report elder abuse, so we worked with other groups to see that that law was passed. But it’s clear there has to be more networking.”
Because it grew out of a Torah-study group led by Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities, Saafe has “a Jewish neshama,” a Jewish soul, Ms. Kaplan said. “At a certain point we wanted to actualize what we were studying. Saafe is a group of Jewish women and one Catholic woman in our late 70s to 90 — many of us retired mental-health professionals, and a couple of lawyers — and we have done some remarkable things.”
One accomplishment has been developing and presenting educational awareness programs tailored to senior groups and to professionals who have frequent contact with the elderly, such as bank employees, police officers, firefighters, and nursing students. “There is financial, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse of seniors, and we want to stress prevention before people become frail,” Ms. Kaplan said.
Saafe also is supporting an effort to establish the SeniorHaven for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, set to open at the beginning of July. The project’s initiator, Jewish Home Family President and CEO Carol Silver Elliott, explained that SeniorHaven will offer community education as well as available beds within the facility to shelter domestic-violence victims 60 and older on an as-needed basis.
Ms. Elliott is modeling the program after the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. That Bronx-based institution houses the nation’s first comprehensive regional elder-abuse shelter, begun about a decade ago. Before joining Jewish Home Family last November, Ms. Elliott had replicated the program at the Cedar Village Retirement Community in Ohio.
“When I came to Rockleigh, I wanted to find a way to continue to do this work that we know is so important,” she said. “We’ve had a small task force working on this, and we’ll be working closely with our partners at the Hebrew Home because we frequently run quite full and might not have space when someone is in crisis, so our friends in Riverdale will shelter that victim if needed.” Referrals could come from Adult Protective Services, hospital emergency rooms, and other sources.
It makes sense to provide emergency shelter in an existing facility for the elderly, Ms. Elliott added. “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,” she continued. “I hope we’ll work closely with Saafe to share in community education. They’ve done amazing job helping to spread the word, and I hope our efforts together will really raise awareness and create a safe place for our most vulnerable citizens.”
About every 18 months, Saafe sponsors a conference on elder abuse in cooperation with the Bergen County Executive and Board of Chosen Freeholders.
The four conferences held so far “have produced concrete and valuable results,” said Ria Sklar of Fort Lee, one of the group’s 15 or so active members. She is a retired social worker who headed a school-district program in special education.
“Our second conference, in 2009, focused on the prosecution of elder abuse, and we had speakers from the county prosecutor’s office,” she said. “As a result, the heads of the police and prosecutor’s office established a police liaison with Adult Protective Services. He has made a significant difference in bringing to court those who have perpetrated elder abuse.
“This is a very hidden problem; people don’t want to report it, and prosecution becomes difficult without extremely close communication between all professionals — hospitals, social workers, and law enforcers.”
The next conference will be held in spring 2016. Ms. Sklar hopes to push not only for greater communication among agencies but also for adding more caseworkers to Bergen County’s four-person Adult Protective Services team. “They have to be there within 72 hours of a report of possible abuse, and that is difficult because they’re understaffed,” she said.