Talk focuses on creating a safe haven for the elderly

Jane Theriault of Freeland performs a hula dance for a crowd at the South Whidbey Senior Center’s luau party earlier this week in Bayview. Experts say activities provided by places such as the South Whidbey center are vital to the health of seniors in the community. - Brian Kelly
Jane Theriault of Freeland performs a hula dance for a crowd at the South Whidbey Senior Center’s luau party earlier this week in Bayview. Experts say activities provided by places such as the South Whidbey center are vital to the health of seniors in the community.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

The South Whidbey Senior Center is a safe haven for many older South Enders.

It provides activities ranging from Tai Chi to driving classes, keeping seniors’ minds and bodies engaged.

For most, it is simply an excellent place to visit and catch up with friends.

Contact with others is vital to seniors and often the best protection from a problem treated as a taboo by society – elder abuse.

Jean Mathisen of the American Association of Retired People, and speaker at the recent elder abuse conference in Oak Harbor, said not being able to interact with others has harmful psychological effects. It also helps crimes go unnoticed.

Geographical isolation in rural areas, or family members pulling away from an aging relative, often cause isolation, she said.

The recent conference, put on by the Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse (CADA), brought law enforcement, care givers and social workers together to discuss rising concerns about the abuse of vulnerable seniors.

Crimes against seniors and mistreatment of the elderly is an upward trend in Island County.

Cmdr. Mike Beech of the Island County Sheriff’s Office said that just like child abuse cases, it is extremely difficult to investigate elder abuse crimes.

But isolation and loneliness in late life sometimes mean another problem for sheriff deputies. Often older people call 911 because they have nobody else to call. This is costly for the county in manpower and dollars.

“Sometimes they just want to talk to a deputy for company,” Beech said.

Abuse has a high shadow number of victims. For every 3.2 cases of reported elder abuse, there are about 100 others that go unreported.

A national elder abuse study counted 449,924 cases of abuse in adults age 60 and over in 1996. One can only imagine how high the actual number is.

Harm can be done with simple means.

“The threat of sending them to a nursing home is common,” Beech said.

Emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse, but is harder to detect.

Ridiculing religious beliefs, making seniors feel they are a burden, or the silent treatment are other examples.

Mathisen said the most common incidents of abuse are financial exploitation and physical abuse, however.

Mathisen recalled a local case when a telemarketer developed a friendship with a woman and talked her into one sale after the other because he “needed just one more sale to make his quota,” or his “daughter was sick and he couldn’t work as much as usual.” After a while, woman’s bank account was depleted.

The victim was so ashamed that she isolated herself.

“She was afraid that if she confided in people, they’d say she is so out of it that she needs a guardian,” Mathisen said.

Financial exploitation can have different faces. Seniors can fall victim to financial scams, or caregivers take advantage of access to bank accounts and use money allotted to pay nursing home bills for a Caribbean vacation, while the senior faces eviction from the nursing home, said Scott Slater of Adult Protective Services.

The number one complaint is financial exploitation, he said.

Slater recommended having financial arrangements in writing — such as an agreement that one family member will pay for the mother’s nursing home bills — because verbal agreements are hard to prove.

He also recommended that seniors have automatic deductions from their accounts for any kind of care services. It cuts out a potential middleman who may mismanage or steal money.

Slater said his agency can help seniors arrange bank business and help seniors protect their finances.

One problem that he faces in helping older people in need is that adults have the right to make their own decisions.

“Part of my job is to protect the person’s right to make bad decisions,” he said.

His agency can not force any senior to change their lifestyle, leave an abusive household or not give away their money.

Physical abuse, as all kinds of mistreatment, can be intentional and unintentional, officials said.

Even people who have no history of violence may break under the stress of caring for an adult with special needs. Caretaker stress may result in rough handling and pushing, but also hitting, Mathisen said.

Mathisen said it is important for caregivers to remember to take care of themselves, as well, and to seek help if things seem overwhelming.

Abuse or neglect in nursing homes or sexual assaults on seniors are the incidents that draw big headlines. They don’t make up the majority of cases, but unfortunately they are reality, said Maggie Barker, a forensic nursing assistant professor at the University of Washington.

Ninety-five percent of residents of nursing homes reported in a study that they witnessed or were victims of neglect or abuse.

Relatives should become concerned if a loved one shows signs of malnutrition, unexplainable bruises or start acting strangely if a specific caregiver or staff member is in the room.

She recalled a case in which a old man stopped sleeping during the night and only slept when his wife was around for visits.

“It turned out that somebody on the night shift abused him, and he only felt save to sleep when his wife was around,” she said.

Sexual abuse often happens in institutional settings as well, she said.

What makes the elderly easy prey for predators is that often security or supervision during night shifts is limited. Also, reports from mentally unstable seniors are often discounted.

Baker said long-term studies have shown that seniors who suffered mistreatment or neglect die from stress, rather than from injuries or the results of malnutrition.

“High stress kills them,” she said.

She urged the audience to keep an eye open for visible signs of abuse, but also keep their heart and ears open for reports from seniors.

“They will tell you,” she said. Unfortunately, often the message remains unheard.

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