The first two weeks they're at the center, victims aren't allowed visits by family members. It gives staff time to learn a family's dynamics and figure out who is safe for the victim to see, and who isn't. Even after the wait period, security is stringent. Round-the-clock guards on the gated property have photos of family and caregivers not allowed in. That was helpful last year when an abuser in her early 30s, who had convinced Michael, 65, a mentally and physically impaired resident, to marry her and then stole his money, tried to enter the facility despite an order of protection from a criminal court. Solomon, one of the center's attorneys, had the marriage annulled, helped Michael obtain a legal guardian, and went to housing court to release him from his rental, where he lived at the time he met his "wife" (before moving to the center).
While 30 percent of center victims, like Martha and Michael, end up living at the Hebrew Home permanently because of their needs, "our goal is not to keep them in the facility," Reingold says. "It's to give them a safe place to be while legal services does its job and they get psychological support, so they can go back home or to another safe environment, and do it with dignity and without stigma."
During their time at the center, which can range from a few days to more than a year, victims participate in Hebrew Home cultural and social activities, as well as other perks — like manicures, pedicures, haircuts — enjoyed by the rest of the residents. Abusers typically isolate victims from other people; being part of a community helps in the healing.
Others staying in the nursing home have no idea they have been abused. When the shelter first opened in December 2004, "we originally thought we'd put all the victims on the same floor," says Solomon, the center's cofounder. "But when the first three people came in, we realized that their needs were all different and there was no reason to segregate them. We didn't want to have a victim's floor."
Most abused residents are on Medicaid, while others receive funding through the Hebrew Home or the center, grants or foundations. Occasionally, families — or even the residents — pay the housing costs.
In 2004, Solomon, a former prosecutor, and Reingold were at a community board meeting on aging discussing elder abuse. Solomon was in the process of trying to find space to open a shelter for elder abuse victims and Reingold offered to open the shelter at the Hebrew Home; she also offered to research what other elder abuse shelters did.
"I discovered there were none," said Reingold. "I thought, 'We have a lot of expertise in our building at the Hebrew Home with different levels of care. Let's put it to new use.' "
Regular domestic violence shelters aren't designed for older adults. Help with bathing, dressing, medication management and mobility are outside their scope of services. And then there are children at a shelter, too, who can add to the noise and anxiety level, exacerbating problems for those who are frail or have dementia.
Experts are trying to get the word out about a problem that affects more than 2 million Americans each year over age 65. Many people don't know elder abuse even exists, and victims may be too afraid, too conflicted (it's often their child or grandchild who is the abuser) or too physically or cognitively impaired to seek help.