NEW YORK, June 6 (JTA) — They are flesh-and-blood examples of the golden years gone terribly wrong: An 86-year-old suffers a broken elbow after being assaulted by her son; a 73-year-old collects cans to pay for food after being robbed by her daughter; an 85-year-old, disillusioned by her children’s ongoing verbal abuse, flees home bound for nowhere in particular. These three local seniors are among the growing number of elderly Americans for whom the promise of growing old gracefully has been thwarted. They are the victims of elder abuse, and their plight has long been shrouded in secrecy and shame, the issue just now creeping into public consciousness the way domestic violence and child abuse did a generation ago. Now, with the inauguration of what is being called the nation’s first full-service elder abuse shelter at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, some abuse victims have a place to seek refuge. The opening of the $3 million Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention — it has been operating since January, but held its high-profile launch event on May 25 — signals this problem plaguing the aged has reached a tipping point. With baby boomers inching towards seniorhood, the problem could get worse unless resources are directed to preventing and treating elder abuse. “I’m still shocked that there aren’t other communities doing this,” said Daniel Reingold, the Hebrew Home’s chief executive. “When it comes to elder abuse, we are today where we were with child abuse and domestic violence 25 years ago.” While many social service agencies work with and advocate for victims of abuse — some even allow seniors to spend a night or two away from home — experts say the new shelter is only the second comprehensive elder abuse shelter in North America, the first being Canada’s Kerby Rotary House in Calgary. With so few safe havens, many elderly abuse victims often have no choice but to remain in their abusive environs. Start-up costs for the shelter were shouldered by a $1 million matching grant from the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. Hebrew Home officials said they expected yearly operating costs to run about $1.2 million per year. “In the end, if you count up the costs of ambulances, emergency room visits and police involvement,” Reingold said, “it’s more expensive not to do it.” The new shelter, whose 31 beds are scattered throughout the home’s leafy Riverdale facility so the victims are not stigmatized, offers round-the-clock triage, one-on-one counseling and legal aid. Staff social workers also make arrangements to ensure a safe return home for the victims. That can mean obtaining an order of protection, hiring a home health care aide, arranging for meal delivery or enrolling seniors in adult day care programs. In addition, the shelter sponsors seminars to teach law enforcement and others in regular contact with seniors — doormen, bank tellers, beauticians — to recognize and report abuse. Hebrew Home executives expect most elder abuse victims will be referred to the shelter by law enforcement officials or social service agencies, and will stay at the facility for about 30 days. “For a person in a crisis situation in need of immediate shelter that’s anonymous, it’s a place to go and regroup and get away from the person who might be intent on doing them harm,” said Jennifer Wortham, the Manhattan district director of Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, a social service agency. “First and foremost it’s a safety issue. “They’ll also have psychological support and, potentially, peer support. That’s important because when [seniors] have to re-create their lives, it’s a very big, rather daunting task.” Reingold said the Hebrew Home, which already serves 1,300 nursing home residents and 1,500 seniors living at home in the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester County, is the ideal place to house the country’s first elder abuse shelter. “It doesn’t surprise me that it’s a Jewish institution doing this,” he said of the historically Jewish, nonsectarian geriatric center. “Jewish institutions have always been the first to intervene when there’s been a social need. It’s part of the mission of tzedakah.” Thus far none of the seven seniors treated at the shelter have been Jewish, but elder abuse cuts across all religions, races and socioeconomic backgrounds, said Joy Solomon, the shelter’s managing attorney. “It definitely happens in the Jewish community, but it’s not embraced by the Jewish community as a major problem,” said Solomon, who specialized in elder abuse during the last two years of her decade-long tenure in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. “It was the same thing that happened years ago when people tried to talk about domestic violence in the Jewish community.” Ellen Kolodney, elder abuse coordinator in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, added: “There is no economic or ethnic monopoly on elder abuse. In upper-middle-class and well-to-do homes it’s more hidden. There’s a lot more shame.” Kolodney said she receives about 200 calls each year reporting elder abuse. Only a small percentage of these incidents are investigated, and even a smaller number are prosecuted, she said. “The elderly person is generally very reluctant to come forward about their grandson or granddaughter,” said Kolodney, noting that the abuse victim is often the main barrier to bringing charges against the perpetrator. “The biggest thing they say is ‘I want help for them. I don’t want them to get arrested or in trouble.’ ” Which is why in some cases prosecutors of elder abuse cases are increasingly attempting to build evidence-based cases that do not rely exclusively on victim testimony. Kolodney said that financial exploitation — increasingly in the form of predatory lending schemes and identity theft — is the fastest growing form of elder abuse, she said. “There’s really a growth of scams that [prey] on the isolated elderly,” she said, noting that as technology becomes more advanced, cons become easier to pull off. “People can be brazen and soulless. It’s so distressing.” Misuse of joint accounts, stealing or unreasonable dependence on an elderly person for basic needs and spending money are other types of financial abuse that take place most often within families. “Physical and sexual abuse does happen, but it may be the least prevalent,” said Kolodney, who said abuse is more often financial or emotional. Neglect is another form of maltreatment the shelter plans to tackle, Reingold said. “Often an adult son taking care of his elderly mother isn’t making sure food is in the house, isn’t cleaning the house,” he said. “And there’s also a lot of self-neglect, when seniors aren’t bathing or taking their medication. These people need to be in a protected environment.” Many times the neglect is not deliberate. For example, an elderly man caring for his bedridden wife with dementia may have the best of intentions but is unable to provide appropriate care. According to “A Response to the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults,” a 2000 study commissioned by the National Center on Elder Abuse, state-run adult protective services departments reported 101,000 substantiated complaints of elder abuse during the prior year. In New York State alone there were nearly 27,000 complaints of adult abuse. Of them, 19,700 were investigated, though the state did not provide the number of elderly victims or the percentage of substantiated claims. The survey also showed that nationally, elder abuse victims of the substantiated claims are 30 percent more likely to be women; perpetrators are 36 percent more likely to be men; 62 percent of abusers are family members; and abuse most commonly occurs in domestic settings. Solomon said that as a result of demographic shifts in an aging population, elder abuse is on the rise. “With housing prices going up, more adult children, many unemployed, are moving in with their elderly parents,” she said. “When the situation becomes abusive, the elderly persons physically can’t get rid of them or aren’t emotionally prepared to kick them out.” Yet the prevalence has made people more cognizant of the problem in recent years. And elder advocates say awareness is the first step toward preventing and treating abuse. They also see the Hebrew Home’s shelter as a model to be replicated. Said Solomon, “Even if a community nursing home has one bed or two beds, not 30,” to devote to elder abuse victims, it’s a start. Experts advise elder abuse victims fearing bodily harm to call 911. In non-emergency situations, abuse victims or those who suspect abuse can call their district attorney’s office or a senior-serving social service agency.
Gabrielle Birkner is JTA's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @gabibirkner.