"Listen and learn."
With that exhortation, a familiar character in an unfamiliar role entered the hall and took his seat. Mickey Rooney, now 90 after a lifetime of Hollywood stardom, was ready to tell a congressional hearing that despite vast experience, a long life and a coterie of counselors and advisers, he had been fleeced.
"Even with this success, my money was stolen from me by someone close," he told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last month. "I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated. Above all, I felt helpless."
Sadly, Rooney speaks for too many. One of every seven older Americans has been victimized physically, emotionally or financially, a recent survey found. Some $2.6 billion of their savings and investments were lost, mishandled, squandered or stolen last year. These are ominous numbers that will only get worse as the older population grows dramatically, from 13 percent of the population to 20 percent by 2030.
Rooney's Capitol Hill appearance exposed the scattershot public response to elder abuse. For the most part, prevention, investigation and resolution of abuse are the responsibility of state governments, though the federal government has taken a greater role since enactment of the Elder Justice Act last year.
Predictably, the federal response has been fragmented, with responsibilities divided among seven offices and agencies with unclear, underfinanced and sometimes overlapping duties. The Elder Justice Act provides $100 million for grants to state and local Adult Protective Service agencies, which spend more than $500 million a year to prevent, investigate and resolve elder abuse cases. These state agencies are the front lines, but they are swamped by the growing number and greater complexity of cases as more people live longer. Florida, for example, saw its caseload grow by 20 percent, to 51,539 incidents, from 2006 to 2008.
The states' responses are complicated by combined pressures of an expanding older population and severe budget deficits. As state lawmakers face a cumulative budget deficit of $130 billion this year, services for older people have been a frequent first slice for budget cutters.
The fact is, Rooney's most important audience was the people who know him best and love him most — us. Far too frequently, victims of elder abuse don't seek help until it's too late. They are too trusting, too proud or too embarrassed to simply call for help.
Even after the publicity his case received, it's difficult to imagine someone of Mickey Rooney's stature and experience being victimized. Yet there he was. "I know because it happened to me," he testified. "My money was taken and misused. I was told it was for my own good and that it was none of my business. I was literally left powerless."
Where to turn? New government agencies may help. But the more immediate need is for greater individual responsibility and self-awareness.
Rooney sensed as much. As he turned from the congressional committee, he nodded to the senators. But his final words were for the public audience: "Don't let it happen to you."
Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.