En español | Actor Mickey Rooney’s dramatic March 2 testimony as a victim of elder abuse helped dramatize an underreported crime that costs millions of older Americans nearly $3 billion a year and prompted Washington lawmakers to escalate efforts to focus federal and state prosecutors’ attention on the crime.
A veteran of more than 300 film roles, the 90-year-old Rooney took the congressional spotlight, telling a U.S. Senate committee investigating abuse that he had been financially exploited and “stripped of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life.” His daily life, he said, became “unbearable.”
Senate Aging Committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) told Rooney that he would file legislation to create an Office of Elder Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice and seek up to $20 million to strengthen local law enforcement and protection efforts.
Kohl’s committee also heard testimony that the severe financial pressure on state governments was curtailing their ability to protect the elderly at a time when the nation’s older population is growing.
The star of the week was Rooney, who in February sought court protection from his stepson Chris Aber and Aber’s wife, Christina, accusing them of withholding basic necessities such as food and medicine while draining him financially.
A judge at Los Angeles Superior Court appointed a temporary conservator for Rooney's affairs and ordered the couple to stay away from him. Chris Aber is the son of Jan Chamberlin, Rooney's wife of 32 years, and through his lawyer he denied the allegations to ABC News.
For years, Rooney told the Senate Special Committee on Aging, he was afraid to seek help because he was "overwhelmed" with fear, anger and disbelief.
"Sometimes the transition from being in control of your life to having absolutely no control is swift, but other times it is so gradual that you wonder exactly when it truly began," he said.
"Over the course of time, my daily life became unbearable. … I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless," the testimony read. "For years I suffered silently, unable to muster the courage to seek the help I knew I needed."
Rooney said fighting abuse is complicated because you are not just dealing with your own fears but you are also dealing with family relationships. "Because of your love for other family members, you might feel hesitant to come forward," he said.
Rooney's conservator, Michael Augustine, told the AARP Bulletin that the actor is "completely competent." Elder abuse can happen even to people with sharp minds and good health, he said.
Millions may suffer
Rooney's testimony comes as the Senate Special Committee on Aging examines the prevalence of elder abuse in America. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than 2 million older adults suffer from physical, financial or other forms of abuse, often at the hands of family members. However, authorities say the actual figure is likely to be much higher, since many incidents go unreported.
Mark Lachs, M.D., director of geriatrics for the NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System, interviewed 4,000 older adults in the most extensive study to date on elder abuse and mistreatment in New York. For every case that's reported, he said, some two dozen go undetected.
In his testimony before the committee, Lachs said he plans to urge lawmakers to provide funding to states to develop elder abuse centers in which physicians, social workers, law enforcement, financial experts and others would work together to identify victims — and protect them against exploitation. He said two such centers, created recently in New York City, could serve as national models.
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