Stopping elder abuse starts with awareness
By Jay Nachman
If it’s summer and 90 degrees outside and an older adult is wearing a winter coat, it may be a sign of elder abuse.
That’s one tip offered by Tamikia Morris, director of older adult protective services (OAPS) at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), a department which works to detect, report and prevent abuse among older adults in Philadelphia.
Every year on June 15, PCA recognizes World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The observance was started by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization, and provides an opportunity for communities around the world to promote a better understanding of the cultural, social, economic and demographic effects caused by the abuse and neglect of older people.
PCA investigates and handles elder abuse that occurs anywhere in Philadelphia, including facilities and within the community.
“We want to make sure that an individual has all that is being promised to them while living in that facility setting,” Morris said. “When investigating a claim [of suspected elder abuse] in a facility, investigators are trained to pay attention to their senses. What do you see? What does it smell like? What do you hear? If you touch the bedsheet, is it wet? Are there spaces (for the older adult) to socialize and enjoy recreation?”
Many forms of harm can take place: financial exploitation, self-neglect and physical abuse. Challenging family dynamics can often hinder investigators’ efforts to intervene to stop elder abuse.
“One thing that family members and friends can look for in older adults is bruises,” Morris said. Although older adults can injure themselves by bumping into things and/or falling, “multiple bruises in different places [on the body], or frequent bruising, tell a story about something else that may be going on.”
Additional warning signs of possible elder abuse may include changes in behavior patterns. “If an older adult who is very social and easy to communicate with shuts down when certain people are around,” Morris said, “it may be a sign of something else that is going on in that relationship.”
Financial exploitation appears in several ways and can have lasting effects on an older adult’s well-being. “It’s not just money; it can be assets, too,” Morris said. “There are instances when older adults have had someone sign their house over to another person. Credit card scams occur when a relative has an older adult’s credit card and buys things for their personal use, rather than on behalf of their relative.”
Morris has seen an increase in older adults being taken advantage of by romance scams. “Those are the toughest ones because some older adults are extremely lonely and to have someone, or to feel like you have someone, is all that many of them want,” she said. “So, they believe in these relationships that are built over the phone [or computer], and they fall for them because it’s a companion to them. It’s a source of support. When older adults are isolated in the community, perpetrators are taking advantage of that.”
PCA receives approximately 5,000 reports of elder abuse each year. Reports of suspected elder abuse can be made 24/7 to the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. “Someone is always available to take the report and go out to initiate an investigation, if need be, no matter what time,” Morris said.
Anyone can make a report of suspected abuse against an older Philadelphian, including strangers, family members, friends, neighbors, church members, medical professionals, home health care workers and older adult abuse victims. All reports are kept confidential. The older adult or perpetrator will never know who made the report.
“Abuse is a major allegation that we take extremely seriously. When we hear about it, we investigate it to the fullest extent possible,” Morris said. “We have the opportunity to mitigate risk, harm or injury to an older adult.
We’re able to intervene at a crucial time to put supports in place, which can include moving the older adult into a safer place, separating them from an alleged perpetrator, or providing services to help the older adult remain safely in their home and community.”
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.