As nationwide media reports highlight the symbiotic relationship between elder abuse and the economic recession, area experts say that while they have not seen an uptick in elder abuse cases in the Jewish community here, the number may well be expected to rise.
Joy Solomon, director and managing attorney of The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, sees a correlation between elder abuse and the fact that “people have fewer economic choices.”
Not only are more family members living under one roof, Solomon told The Jewish Standard, but worsening circumstances may lead to alcoholism and substance abuse – “all risk factors for abuse.”
In addition, she said, social services are being cut, “leading to increased isolation for those who are already isolated.”
In its July Bulletin, the AARP reported that incidents of elder abuse have increased 13 percent in Florida over the last two years, according to the state’s Adult Protective Services. In Texas, the number rose 8 percent.
“The jump comes after the most recent nationwide analysis of elder abuse estimated that reported cases increased 30 percent from 1997 to 2007,” according to the AARP report.
Fort Lee resident Ria Sklar, founder and coordinator of Save Abused and Frail Elderly, noted that the economic downturn has given rise to increasing numbers of financial scams targeting the elderly.
In addition, she said, “grandchildren or siblings who need money may raid the family bank accounts.”
Statistics on the issue are scarce, said Sklar.
“Part of the reason is that it’s a hidden problem the elderly don’t want to talk about,” especially if the abuse is perpetrated by a family member or someone they trust.
“They’re afraid of losing the support of someone they need the most. We’re never going to have honest statistics,” she said. “It’s an underreported problem. That’s what we’re here for.”
SAAFE, now in its third year, works with agencies and professionals to increase public awareness and identification of abuse and neglect of the elderly.
“More than 2 million vulnerable adults fall prey to abuse in the United States each year,” said Sklar. “It is important that people learn to recognize the signs of abuse and neglect so that our seniors live in safe environments with dignity and respect.”
Mimi Paperman, director of elder care for Jewish Family Service of Bergen County, pointed out that elder abuse most commonly starts “as a financial problem, and we are seeing more of that.”
Paperman said the agency has seen an increasing number of elderly clients whose children had been helping them out but now can’t. “There’s more neglect because [families] are stressed beyond belief,” she said, adding that unemployed children of elderly parents – especially those suffering some kind of memory loss – get especially frustrated. Having lost their jobs, and no longer able to hire others to provide care for their parents, “their patience wears thin.”
“It’s not where the son or daughter wanted to be,” she said. “The financial climate has put a lot of strain on families. We haven’t seen a huge increase [in elder abuse] yet, but we’ve seen little bits of it, especially from the caregiving aspect.”
Lisa Fedder, director of JFS-Bergen, pointed out that withdrawal of financial help may work in both directions. Not only may children who formerly helped their parents no longer be able to do so, but parents who helped support their children may also be forced to cut back.
In addition, she said, the fact that some families have been forced to live together, “brings up issues people didn’t have to deal with for a long time. It’s really been a struggle, with both sides having to redefine their roles and expectations.”
According to Sklar, SAAFE, together with other groups, is urging the New Jersey legislature to pass a bill mandating the reporting of elder abuse. At present, while it is required that cases of child abuse be reported to authorities, no such provision exists for elder or spousal abuse.
The AARP report points out that since each state has its own elder abuse laws, definitions of abuse and prosecution for such acts vary across the country. In addition, the report continues, “[s]tate adult protective service programs, which handle elder abuse, are severely underfunded, a problem exacerbated by recession-era cuts in state budgets.”
Together with the Bergen County Freeholders Division of Senior Services, Bergen County Community Development, and the Bergen County City Police Chief Association, SAAFE will sponsor a conference on elder abuse, to be held Oct. 30 at Bergen Community College.
Sklar pointed out that the conference will target all professionals, “not just social workers and caretakers but lawyers, doctors, and bankers,” to drive home the point that “this is an overlapping problem” and it is up to each of them “to help unearth it.”
And, said Paperman, families should remember that if they’re feeling strained, “they can come to our agency and vent here rather than to their parents.”
For further information on the October conference, call SAAFE at (551) 795-0471.