En español │ When Tom* learned his 30-year-old son was moving to America from West Africa to live with him, he was thrilled. For more than 20 years, he had worked two jobs, as a New York City cabdriver and a security guard, so he could support his wife and seven children back home.
What he did not anticipate was having a drunk driver hit his cab, breaking two knees and his back so he was unable to work, as well as a son who refused to get a job. One day, Tom asked his son to turn down the radio. Instead, he stormed over to his dad, broke his cane and locked him in his bedroom.
Walking down the street another day, "I felt someone behind me," recalls Tom. "My son jumped on my back, and grabbed the food in my hand. I fell to the ground. 'One day I will kill you,' he said. I was in an accident and he was supposed to help me. I sacrificed my life for my kids, and this is how my son says thank you? Why did he do this to me?"
It's a question that staff get asked repeatedly by the dozen or so residents, like Tom, who come each year to the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention located at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y., the nation's first elder abuse shelter in a long-term care facility.
A whole new concept of protection
The concept couldn't come soon enough for the age 65-plus victims of physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse, most often hurt at the hands of a family member who may also be their caregiver. Among the victims are those with dementia who may not be able to articulate the abuse; their bruises or empty bank accounts speak for themselves.
While Americans are living longer — thus delaying inheritances — unemployment is growing, the economy continues to sour and adult children and their older parents are being forced to move in together.
"It's a recipe for elder abuse," says Daniel Reingold, president and CEO of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. Within five years, the center predicts, it will see the number of abused each year double, hitting around 25 annually; since it opened in December 2004, the center has taken in 60 people.
There are about a half-dozen shelters in other nursing homes around the country — in Connecticut, upstate New Jersey, Rhode Island and Atlanta — and most are based on the nonprofit Hebrew Home model.
Tom, 65, is one of the youngest resident victims — most are in their 70s and 80s — which is one reason the center plans to find him public housing. But for now, "I've got peace here," he says. He gets around the home with a new walker and cane, handy for visiting the computer room downstairs where he likes to spend time.
Tom sees an optometrist, dentist and other medical specialists in the building free of charge, while a social worker specializing in elder abuse counsels him. An on-site attorney works with the police, criminal courts and the district attorney's office to move along Tom's criminal case and make sure his protective order against his son is kept current. "We have the infrastructure of the home, along with our little SWAT team of two lawyers, one designated social worker and many others," says Joy Solomon, the center's director and managing attorney.
To Michelle Errante, a social worker who treats elder abuse patients, "the biggest obstacle is getting them to come to terms with the abuse. They'll say, 'My daughter didn't mean it,' or 'My son didn't know what he was doing.' "
Another of the center's residents, Martha, 86, is a widow who was married for 52 years. She had moved in with her son after she broke her arm. When she told him she didn't want to go to a nursing home that he had selected, "he became wild and dragged me around. Yet I still love him," she says. "I'm sad he won't talk to me, and I'd love to see him."
*Names of the residents have been changed to protect their privacy.