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Elder Abuse is a social pandemic, according to lawmakers

Mickey Rooney4-1

Actor Mickey Rooney told Congress, March 2, that he was left powerless by a family member who took and misused his money.

“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney told a special Senate committee considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens. “But above all, when a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”

The 90-year-old film and television star told lawmakers that elder abuse comes in various forms, including physical and emotional. In his case, he described the abuse as financial.

In his testimony, Rooney did not identify the family member he contends abused him. But he has obtained a restraining order from a judge in Los Angeles keeping his stepson, Chris Aber, away from him until an April 5 court hearing.

Rooney has accused Aber in court filings of withholding food and medicine and meddling in his personal finances.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who chairs the Special Senate Committee on Aging, said the elderly are particularly vulnerable because they are “often fragile” and their abusers usually stand little chance of getting caught.

As the national stage focused on elder abuse, Massachusetts, Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, and Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, recently convened a special legislative briefing at the State House on the subject of elder abuse. More than 100 people attended the event.

“Although it is not thought of as a social pandemic,” Clark said, “abuse of the elderly is increasing at an alarming rate in Massachusetts.” According to Clark, there is an average of 54 new reports of elder abuse every day in Massachusetts. Studies show that for every one report made, 24 cases of elder abuse go unreported.

Brodeur said, “My experience as the former acting general counsel for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs will be helpful in raising awareness about elder abuse and describing the challenges of providing elder protective services in the current budget environment.”

Protective caseworker Krystle Brown from Mystic Valley Elder Services presented a profile of one of her elderly clients who was physically assaulted by her husband, a Vietnam-era veteran who was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone and Disabled Unit Chief Marian Ryan spoke of the need for frontline preventive work, to help divert cases from reaching the district attorney’s office.

“Of all the necessary and important programs and services supported by state funds, no program is more important than the elder protective services program,” said Dan O’Leary, executive director of Mystic Valley Elder Services. “You have to be ready to go at moment’s notice and be prepared to deal with what can be explosive and traumatic situations.”

The Commonwealth has had an elder abuse/protective services law for 27 years. In 1984, a total of 1,529 reports were investigated. This year, an estimated 19,554 reports will be investigated. That’s more than two new abuse filings every hour of every day.

“Violence against seniors is not a comfort-zone topic,” Clark said. “It’s one of those ‘dark corner’ issues that people don’t like to talk about.”

According to Mass Home Care, elder abuse is not just physical and sexual violence. It includes emotional abuse, as well as neglect by a caregiver, financial exploitation and self-neglect. Most abuse is at the hands of relatives or friends, and each report can be volatile and even dangerous to investigate.

The abuse law requires certain “mandated reporters,” such as doctors, nurses, police, firefighters, directors of home health agencies and home care agencies to file a report if they have “reasonable cause to believe” that an elder has been abused or neglected. But anyone can make an abuse report.

If an investigation confirms abuse or neglect, the elder is offered an array of support services. In cases of serious abuse, a report to the district attorney is made for possible prosecution.

Despite the state elder abuse law, funding for elder abuse has not kept up with other protective programs, according to Mass Home Care. Child abuse and domestic violence programs are funded 31 times higher than protective care for the elderly.

Last June, the protective services program was cut by $1.45 million because of late federal matching funds. When the federal funds arrived last fall, the protective funding was not restored.

Lack of funding has forced these protective agencies to “triage” some abuse reports, leaving them only partially investigated. Advocates are now seeking an appropriation of $17.2 million, slightly above the 2010 appropriation level of $16.7 million before the cutbacks of last summer.

Material for this report comes from the Mass Home Care bulletin and the Associated Press.

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