|Carol Silver Elliott, River Vale Jewish Home Family president and CEO|
As the population in the region ages, officials have grown more concerned about elder abuse. The Bergen County Office of Adult Protective Services has investigated more than 200 reports of such abuse so far this year — and confirmed 40 instances in which a senior has been physically abused or financially exploited by caregivers, family members or others. Thirty years ago, there were just a handful of these cases each year, officials said.
Seniors often remain victims for far too long, often out of shame, financial desperation or a desire not to be displaced.
“We’ve been working a number of years to educate the professionals who come in contact with older abuse victims and to establish better working relationships so that these cases get reported and get investigated,” said Ria Sklar, a founder of Save Abused and Frail Elderly, a Bergen County group that operates a hotline for people to report elder abuse. “What we didn’t have for a number of years — and now we do — was a shelter.”
The push to find shelters that offer nursing care as well as a safe hideout has arisen from a greater awareness that different tactics are needed to persuade elderly victims to seek help and to get those who witness mistreatment to take action
Victims of elder abuse are less likely to turn up at domestic violence shelters, advocates say, and even if they do, such programs are primarily designed to serve young families rather an elderly person with medical issues.
“Domestic violence shelters are really intended for young women and young children. They might have stairs, or narrow hallways, or toys on the floor for children to play with. For someone who uses a walker or is on medication that needs to be monitored, it’s not always an ideal place,” said Carol Silver Elliott, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Home Family, the non-profit that runs Senior Haven, which offers the free room for abused seniors.
The group promises a free stay for up to four months at either its Rockleigh nursing home or the assisted living residence it operates in River Vale. Referrals to Senior Haven may be made by calling 855-455-0555.
Elder abuse victims often have counseling and legal needs that don’t fall within the usual expertise offered at traditional domestic abuse shelters, said Joy Solomon, who helped found the first elder abuse shelter in the country more than 10 years ago in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Rather than needing advice on divorce and child custody proceedings, or help finding a job and a baby sitter, older victims might be in need of nursing care, help applying for Medicaid or a referral to a lawyer who can help them sever exploitative power-of-attorney arrangements they might have been coerced into signing.
There are now 14 elder abuse shelters that have opened in East Coast and Midwest metropolitan areas in the past decade as part of a network known as the Spring Alliance.
“My dream is to one day have one in every community like we have a domestic violence shelter in every community,” said Solomon, who heads the shelter network and serves as director and managing attorney for the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale.
Medical, legal aid
In North Jersey, The Jewish Home Family has agreements with its medical director, pharmaceutical suppliers and other service providers not to bill a patient who is there for emergency shelter. While at the nursing home or assisted living center, victims will be provided with any needed medical care as well as counseling and legal assistance until caseworkers can find them permanent housing or long-term care.
Since the program was launched, one senior convalesced for a month at the nursing home. The woman had been physically abused and denied food in her prior home. Her circumstances were known to only the few trusted staffers charged with her care and counseling, and her eventual relocation not disclosed so as to protect her from being victimized again, Elliott said.
Maria Aberasturi, supervisor of Bergen County’s Adult Protective Services, knows there are other seniors out there who also need to be rescued. In her nearly three decades as a social worker, she has encountered many elderly residents who are resistant to leaving their homes, even in situations where they are being abused, neglected, starved or having their bank accounts drained.
“Some people worked their whole lives for their home, and even in these situations, their home is where they are comfortable being,” Aberasturi said. “To lose your house and go into the great unknown when you are older is hard.”
Estimates of how much abuse occurs in the older population vary greatly, but the National Council on Aging cites surveys that found that one in every 10 adults over 60 has experienced some form of elder abuse, which can include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, confinement, denial of food or medicine or financial exploitation. Only one in 14 cases is reported, according to the council.
Perpetrators often exercise psychological control over elderly victims by isolating and threatening them. The abuse continues because seniors are dependent on the abuser for care or help managing the household.
“Sometimes it’s caregiver burnout or sometimes it’s flat-out abuse,” Elliott said. “Financial exploitation tends to be a big piece of the puzzle.
“In many, many cases, the abuser is the child or grandchild, so the victim feels shame that this is someone to whom they taught values who is behaving this way,” Elliott said.
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Bergen County nursing home offers free room to abused seniors in need