Elder Abuse

By Sean Corcoran

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Reports of abuse and exploitation of the elderly on Cape Cod are increasing each year. Barbara-Anne Foley remembers receiving a phone call at her home one evening a year ago this past May. Foley is the executive director of the Harwich Council on Aging, and the person on the line was a town police officer. When the conversation was over, Foley hung-up feeling guilty and helpless. Two seniors she had been working with were dead. For them, the growing problem of elder abuse had reached a dramatic and the most tragic conclusion.

Barbara-Anne Foley: "We had set it up so we could get services to these people and help them with the dementia because it was new to them and a difficult issue, and before we could actually render any help. We also did not realize there was a weapon in the house -- The gentleman shot his wife and then shot himself. It would be easy to say, nobody new about them, they weren't connected, they weren't involved in the system at all and were one of those forgotten souls. But this was a couple that was involved in many agencies, was looking for help and in the process of getting help and this still happened."

That murder-suicide was an awakening for the town of Harwich. Foley says community leaders decided never again on their watch would something like this happen. Since then, Harwich has launched a full-scale assault against elder abuse of all kinds: physical, sexual, emotional, neglect and exploitation. And Foley hopes that other communities will follow their lead. Each year, the reporting abuse statistics go higher. Marianne Milton, a protective services supervisor for Elder Services of Cape Cod & the Islands, says that last month alone, the organization received sixty-seven reports of elder abuse. That's about twice as many as normal.

Marianne Milton: "We've received approximately 270 reports since July 1, now the larger number of reports tend to revolve around neglect, emotional abuse and financial exploitation. There were, I believe, 7,000 in the year 2004 in the state of Mass. However, not all of those are substantiated."

Abuse comes in all sorts of forms. There's physical and emotional abuse, of course, as well as neglect. But other times seniors are just taken advantage of. Perhaps they are lonely or just too trusting and they find themselves the victim of a scam. Robin Wilkins is a Harwich selectman. He recently helped moderate a symposium about elder abuse, prompted to do so because a close family member of his has been a victim. Over a period of months, a caller had convinced Wilkins' uncle to give up his credit card number, telling him that a large lottery payoff was on the way.

Robin Wilkins: " It is a scam. And because these people are home alone, they are lonely and not going out a lot. These people have very seductive voices on the telephone. They charm them, like on a day like today, 'Oh, how's the weather there? Too bad you can't get out.' They became their friends. This would build up over six, eight months, a year, and they develop a relationship with the elderly. The elderly consider them their friends." Harwich Police Chief Bill Mason can rattle off dozens of scams that he's made aware of as chief during the past six years. It's a never-ending stream of creative people finding new ways to take advantage, he says.

Bill Mason: "We had one situation where a gentleman came in and offered to put a roof on somebody's house, they went and stripped the whole roof off, including all of the shingles and waterproofing that was currently there, and then said that they needed to have the money to go buy the new shingles and the new roofing material and then left town with the elder's money, leaving not only not a new roof, but a roof that is now not impervious to the weather and was leaking."

Losing money and experiencing the stress and embarrassment that comes with being prayed upon by a stranger is serious and should not be dismissed with a roll of the eyes or the thought, "Gee, shouldn't they have known better?" But things can become deadly serious when it is a loved one that is doing much more harmful things, such as withholding care or becoming emotionally or physically abusive. And statistics say that in forty percent of abuse situations, the perpetrator is an adult child. Jim Sykes knows of an unreported abuse situation. He's 82, and he recently attended a symposium to learn how to protect himself if he needs home care. He wanted a friend of his to come to the session, because when he sees her she cries about what is happening in her own home life. But she wouldn't come, just like she hasn't done anything to report what is going on and get some outside help.

Jim Sykes: "The people that are involved are her children and her husband, who for, I don't know why they ended upon her door, but they are living in her cellar, they are not contributing to the welfare of the house. They pay a stipend, about 200 dollars a month for all the heat and the food. It is a crying shame. I talk to her about it and try to help her. But she is an enabler. She puts up with it."

Sykes calls her an enabler, but for a variety of reasons, her response is quite common, Milton says.

Marianne Milton: "Parents remain as parents even when you're talking an adult child of 40 or 50 years old and the parent is reluctant to seek help or report that and therefore they don't allow themselves to seek help, are in denial about it. But it is abuse. Sometimes the emotional abuse is the adult son or daughter who threatens to put a person into a nursing home. That can certainly be viewed to be abuse emotionally. We've had cases of sons or daughters threaten to take away pets. That is emotionally abusive, and no one should feel that they need to be subjected to that. Those are the cases where we can work with people to find alternatives. Maybe the son or daughter really does need to leave the home. And it's finding the right direction for the son or daughter."

These things happen for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's a medical problem. Perhaps a loved one is in the early stages of dementia, which can bring personality changes. Other times a caregiver becomes overwhelmed and doesn't reach out for help and frustration builds. There's also self-neglect, where people cannot take care of themselves like they used to. And then, of course, there are those who take advantage simply because they can. The first step to making things better is to ask for help.

Marianne Milton: "A lot of times people who need assistance are afraid to ask for it for fear that will be interpreted as they need to go into a nursing home, so they either fail to seek that help or they refuse to take it when it is offered. It is our belief that people are more apt to end up in a nursing home if they are unwilling to accept the help. Help is what is going to keep someone at home. And it also prevents them from being prayed upon by others because they are not as isolated."

The first place to report suspected abuse or ask for help dealing with an overwhelmed or ignorant caregiver, is Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands. They have investigators and support people dedicated to making things better for everyone. When it comes to scams, most councils on aging keep lists of contractors and handymen that have been checked out to make sure they have never been in trouble with the law. In these situations, police say, use your gut. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Our story on Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands.

Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands
Main Office
68 Route 134, South Dennis, MA 02660
Email: caregiver@escci.org

Elder Services of Cape of Cape Cod and the Islands also has offices in Pocasset, Oak Bluffs and Nantucket.
For more information on their other offices see our list of Community Resources.

Broadcast December 15, 2005

Sean Corcoran reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.