It was a Columbia County resident, who expressed indignation about a demonstration in front of the Columbia County Courthouse to foster awareness of elder abuse.
The caller said she simply could not believe that vulnerable older adults ever experienced physical, psychological or financial abuse in Columbia County, even though, at that time, 108 cases had been reported in the county in the preceding year.
On Wednesday, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, the purple balloons and purple pinwheels were returned to the front entrance of the courthouse — 137 of each, to represent the 137 cases of elder abuse reported in Columbia County over the last year.
Mulhern, director of Columbia County’s Aging and Disability Resource Center, said she doesn’t know why the number of reported cases has increased.
“It could be that people are becoming more aware, or it could be because times are hard,” she said. “We just don’t know.”
On Wednesday morning — for a relatively brief time, because of the heat and humidity — purple-clad people gathered at the courthouse. They included not only older adults, but also representatives of law enforcement, human services and other agencies charged with the safety of vulnerable seniors.
The term “elder abuse” applies, in general, to people age 65 or older, though it can happen to any vulnerable adult.
Elder abuse is not just physical attacks — hitting, slapping, bruising, burning with cigarettes — although all that happens.
It could entail emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, neglect, abandonment and self-neglect.
It was self-neglect, according to Mulhern, that resulted in Columbia County’s one death in the last year that was traceable to elder abuse. Self-neglect happens when seniors stop taking care of themselves — stop eating, bathing or tending to their medical needs — sometimes because they no longer can do those things for themselves and do not ask for help.
DeSomer, who has a background in child protective services, said she often sees elder abuse cases that are similar to child abuse cases, in that unhealthy family dynamics are hurting someone who’s vulnerable.
According to Weaver, more and more reports deal with financial exploitation of older people. Many of these reports, she said, come from employees of financial institutions, who may notice large or frequent withdrawals from a senior citizen’s account, or suspicious behavior on the part of a relative who may be taking unfair or unlawful advantage of his or her access to a vulnerable older person’s account.
What all forms of elder abuse have in common, according to Weaver, is that they often are, to the victim, astonishing and puzzling.
“You don’t want to believe that your own children would do this to you,” she said. (The abuser of an older adult isn’t always his or her child. It could be anybody, including another senior citizen.)
When people see what they suspect to be elder abuse, Weaver said, they often don’t tell anybody, out of embarrassment, fear or a misguided sense of family loyalty.
Many, however, don’t know what to do.
That’s why Weaver and DeSomer are here to help.
Anyone in Columbia County who suspects elder abuse should call the ADRC at 608-742-9233 or 888-742-9233.
Mulhern said people who are committed to safety for vulnerable older adults may also participate in the I-team — an interdisciplinary group, overseen by the ADRC, consisting of public safety workers, administrators of nursing homes or assisted living facilities and individuals from all walks of life. The I-team, according to Mulhern, brings in speakers and taps other resources for improving safety for seniors.
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Elder Abuse Awareness Day shines spotlight on hidden scourge; 137 cases this year in Columbia County