Old and Alone: The Epidemic of Elder Abuse in America

Elder abuse is a widespread problem, but only one in 23 cases are reported, according to the Department of Justice.

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Sep 20 2016, 2:15pm

Photo by Flickr user Marcel Oosterwijk

In 2015, 77-year-old Elaine Latshaw was found dead in her home in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, covered in her own urine, feces, and blood. Her foot was so destroyed by gangrene that the bones were protruding, according to local news reports. An autopsy later attributed her death to "aspiration pneumonia due to multiple pressure ulcerations, gangrene, and malnutrition due to hypertensive vascular disease with vascular dementia."

Local police say her death was no accident. This summer, Latshaw's son John and his girlfriend Dorothy Robinson were charged with the third-degree murder for their failure to care for Latshaw. The couple, for their part, say they were simply following Latshaw's wishes—and that she wanted to die.

By 2040, more millennials will be caring for the elderly than for the next generation of children. One in ten of those people will be abused—emotionally, physically, or both—and for 90 percent of those abused, it will be at the hands of their own family and caretakers, according to the National Council on Aging.

"It really is a national hidden scandal," said Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of caregiver support service Caregiving Club, who has worked in and outside of the government to advocate for elder rights. "There's a lot of shades of gray to this."

So many shades, in fact, that elder abuse can be extremely difficult to spot, especially when the perpetrators are the victim's own caregivers. Snelling says it typically happens in one of two ways: There's intentional abuse, like collecting government money and not using it to care for an elder or exploiting an elder's assets when they can't speak for themselves. And then there's unintentional abuse, which typically boils down to family members and caretakers who do not have the time, training, or money to properly care for their loved ones, who wind up neglected as a result.

Both are criminal offenses but can be very difficult to prove in a legal setting—especially since only an estimated one in 23 cases of elder abuse are reported, according to the Department of Justice's figures. In other words, elder abuse is "rampant, largely invisible, expensive, and lethal," as Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Association, said in a hearing for the Senate Special Committee on Aging last year.

High-profile elder abuse cases, like that of Mickey Rooney, Casey Kasem, and Brooke Astor, show families falling apart in real time, battling for money and power in front of a largely baffled public. (In Rooney's case, he was allegedly denied necessities like food and water while his stepchildren drained his bank account.) But Snelling upholds that elder abuse is no more likely to happen to rich people than anyone else. The middle to lower class, she pointed out, tends to assume the responsibility of caretaking themselves for financial reasons, which can lead to unintentional neglect.

"There's a stigma to a lot of this, families want to keep it under wraps," Snelling said. "There's a Hatfield and McCoys kind of vibe around this whole topic."

Earlier this summer, the Senate approved a resolution to recognize World Elder Abuse Awareness Day in an effort to call attention to the problem. Gwen Graham, a US representative from Florida, also announced plans to draft new legislation that would create an elder abuse registry to protect seniors.

On the local level, there have been initiatives to raise awareness for these kinds of situations, too. Los Angeles, for example, introduced an elder abuse hotline that people can call to report abuse—physical, financial, emotional, or otherwise. (District Attorney Jackie Lacey started the initiative after her mother was the victim of a telephone scam.) Baltimore and Washington, DC, both offer court accompaniment, counseling, and legal help to victims of elder abuse. But taking advantage of these kinds of services requires identifying elder abuse in the first place—which can be tricky when the victims are senile.

Snelling said she was encouraged by these baby steps toward improving legislation and encourages families to continue learning how best to prepare for what is very often an unexpected role as caregiver. "I do think there's hope. I think a lot of people are waking up to the fact that this is not going away," she told me. "I think the biggest deficit we have in caregiving is not having the conversation."

As for John Latham and Dorothy Robinson, we don't know exactly what happened with Elaine Latham's care. We don't know if it was a matter of lack of time, desire for money, or mere unintentional negligence. What we do know is that it hasn't only resulted in their imprisonment, it's resulted in the unnecessary death of an elderly woman who couldn't care for herself. What we do know is that it's not an unusual thing to happen in this country.

Follow Jamie Loftus on Twitter.

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