In the past, police often treated it as a family matter or didn't realize it was happening. "Elder abuse is about 20 years behind where we are in child abuse and domestic violence," says Solomon. Today, law enforcement is coming down hard on abusers, and with more reporting and more places for older adults to go, the issue will get more attention. The recently signed Elder Justice Act, which is part of the health care reform legislation, only adds to the momentum. Among its provisions is $100 million a year over four years for adult protective services.
Sounding the call
The home and some other shelters are helping to raise awareness by educating and training police, hospitals, social workers, lawyers, district attorneys' offices, community groups, physicians, adult protective service workers — and even apartment building doormen and superintendents — how to look for, and deal with, elder abuse, including sexual assault.
"We're trying to create a culture change to let people know that domestic violence can happen at any age," says Laura Snow, coordinator of the Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., which is based on the Hebrew Home model. (See "Abused at the Nursing Home.")
Again, the center is leading the charge. For the last two years, all patients in the Hebrew Home system — whether they get managed long-term care, home health care, adult day care, short-term rehabilitation or skilled nursing care — are screened for elder abuse. They're asked several questions, including if they have been forced to do anything they didn't want to, are free to use the telephone, or are afraid for their safety.
The center has shared its standard screening with others who come in contact with older people. In addition, it has created a sexual abuse assessment tool for professionals. "When police speak to a woman physically abused by her grandson, she won't be asked about sexual assaults," says Solomon. "There's this feeling that it would never happen, and older people tend not to report assaults with an intimate partner."
The center has also helped create the New York City Elder Abuse Center, a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement, district attorneys, social service agencies, adult protective services and physicians, who discuss a case and make recommendations.
In October, the Hebrew Home will cosponsor an international conference in Washington, D.C., on elder abuse. "We know our model can be replicated. We know it works," says Reingold.
What he did not know is that an unlikely romance would blossom between two elder abuse victims living on the same floor. More than a year ago, Martha (the woman who was abused by her son but misses him) and Michael (swindled by his "wife") arrived at the center within one month of each other. Despite their 20-plus-year age difference, the older woman and younger man have been inseparable almost from the start, holding hands wherever they go in the home.
Michael dreams of leaving the facility — an unrealistic option for medical reasons — moving into an apartment with Martha, and getting married. Martha, however, has never felt safer or more cared for right where she is. "The staff brings me to the clinic for my eyes and whatever else I need. I feel like I have everything here," she says.
Sally Abrahms writes on aging and boomers for national magazines, newspapers and websites. She is based in Boston.