Over a 50-year marriage in which she had been abused verbally, financially and physically, Doris learned to do what her husband told her.
So on a Friday four years ago, when he told her to go to their daughter’s house in Orange County without him, Doris, then 74 and living in Riverside, collected some clothes and put them in the car. But when he saw her packing, her husband “lost it,” she recalled, and told her not to come back.
“On Monday, he thought I’d be back, but I didn’t come back,” said Doris, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her real name wouldn’t be used. “I haven’t been back.”
Well into her 60s, Doris recalled, her husband was still bashing her head into walls. The past four years have been free of violence only because she has lived with her children and, more recently, on her own – at a high cost to all of them.
“I’ve always been used to having my own place to live. I’m not used to being a burden on anyone. Where was I supposed to go?”
That’s just one of the questions faced by the growing number of older abuse victims in Orange County.
In 2014, the Orange County Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Registry received more than 9,000 reports of adult abuse in Orange County. That’s a 74 percent increase in the past 10 years; from 2013 to 2014 alone, the calls increased 13.5 percent.
Adult Protective Services reports that 75 percent of those calls were for seniors 65 and older. Experts believe more go unreported.
As with other domestic abuse cases, elderly victims often are afraid to report abusers because they are family members, according to officials with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Frequently they’re financially dependent on them.
Shelter options are scarce here for those over 65 who live in dangerous situations.
On March 1, a committee made up of county agencies launched the Elder Shelter network. In the pilot program, which is the first of its kind in California, agencies such as the Silverado group, a nationwide, long-term care agency, and the be.group reserve beds in their housing facilities for older victims who need to be moved.
The agencies in the network have donated a limited number of beds in their buildings for these cases and will have trained staff to care for those individuals.
The Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Registry’s reports of abuse against people 65 and older range from neglect to financial coercion, to emotional abuse, verbal assaults and physical attacks.
Abusers are usually family members, law enforcement agencies say. They often face criminal consequences, and have their sentences bumped up because of the age of the abused. But victims are left without caregivers and safe living conditions.
“I get elder abuse cases where we’ve got an adult child harming the elder in some way. We get a good case, we’re going to take it to trial and the family recants everything,” said Robert Thompson, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigator who handles elder abuse cases.
“They live with them and don’t want their son or their daughter getting in any trouble. So sometimes they’ll just say it didn’t happen.”
Sometimes both the abused and their abuser are mentally incapacitated and need to be separated.
“One couple in their 70s … the woman had beaten him for a couple of days and when we got the call for a welfare check, he was still sitting on the chair where she had beaten him,” recalled Sgt. Sam Hernandez, who leads the domestic violence detail at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “He almost died. She had beat him so bad but she didn’t know what she was doing.”
In an emergency, abused elders are typically sent to hospitals while authorities try to track down family members or acquaintances. Conventional shelters, like those for abused women with children, usually won’t turn away an older person in need. But they often don’t have the services needed by older people, especially those with medical conditions.
Stacey Lindberg, program manager at Adult Protective Services of Orange County, said shelter network will be especially helpful to those victims with mental deficiencies.
“All of these facilities that we are using have memory care units that specialize in cognitive disabilities,” she said.
Even when there are shelter options, they don’t always fit.
“I’ve run in to situations where someone is willing to help, but the places they have to send these people to are not great,” Thompson said. “Like a homeless shelter … that’s not someplace we’d want to be sending people.”
Thompson works closely with the county organizations geared to help older victims. He says he sometimes feels at a loss when it comes to pointing people in the right direction.
“Plenty of times I’ve sat there and said, ‘I don’t know who to send you to. Have you tried social services?’ They’ll say, ‘I’ve tried all those things. I need help. Help me.’ And they’re very frustrated.”
The problem of elder abuse is growing along with the county’s senior population.
According to the U.S. Census 2013 estimate, about 12.8 percent of Orange County’s population was 65 and older. In 2010, it was 11.6 percent.
By 2050, seniors are expected to comprise 20 percent of the total U.S. population.
“In Orange County our aging demographics are outpacing the state,” said Lisa Gibbs, a clinical professor and chief of geriatrics and gerontology at the UC Irvine School of Medicine and a specialist at the Elder Abuse Forensic Center, which is made up of law enforcement, medical, educational and justice agencies.
According to the center, slightly more than a quarter of the county’s seniors have a disability.
“We have more cases of dementia per capita than any surrounding areas, and dementia is a huge risk factor for elder abuse,” Gibbs said.
For seniors, the challenges of reporting an abuser are magnified if it’s someone they depend on. Turning them in can mean having to start over late in life.
For the first two years after Doris left her husband, he would call and threaten to kill her. She managed to get a restraining order. Now, with the help of Laura’s House advocates, she is working on a legal separation.
After staying with friends and her children, Doris is living in her own apartment at a community for seniors. She no longer has to “walk on eggshells” in her own home.
She can pick a restaurant and open the mail – the sort of little things her husband barred her from doing.
“It’s hard, but I wish I’d left sooner,” she said. “There are people who can help you.”
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'Where was I supposed to go?' Pilot program helps elder abuse victims, whose O.C. numbers are on the rise