Elder abuse: A growing epidemic

OBSERVER Photo by Jo Ward Nicole Parshall, staff attorney for the Center for Elder Law & Justice.

Elder abuse is becoming a growing epidemic in society and the people at the Center for Elder Law & Justice understand this better than anyone.

The Center for Elder Law & Justice is a free provider of civil legal services, primarily for people 60 and older, dealing specifically with issues such as landlord/tenant problems; foreclosures; medicaid, medicare and private insurance denial of services; consumer protection; health care proxys and powers of attorney.

About a year ago, the Center for Elder Law, the Chautauqua County Court System and the New York State Unified Court System applied for a federal grant through the Administration of Community Living, a subset of the Department of Health and Human Services. With this funding, the Elder Advocacy Program, a pilot project, was started. The program helps train groups, individuals and anyone who wants to listen on how to spot abuse.

Outlined by the program, abuse can include physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, neglect and financial exploitation. Financial crimes, are by far the most common and the most unrecognized according to Licensed Master Social Worker Kayleah Feser, who works for the Center.

“Elder abuse in general is an incredibly underreported crime,” Feser shared. “One in 24 cases are ever reported. When it comes to financial it’s estimated that only one in 44 cases is identified.”

According to her, financial, can come in two forms, scams by a criminal organization or trusted individuals; allegedly 90% of elder abuse is perpetrated by a trusted individual of the survivor, such as a care giver, an adult child or grandchild.

“We’ve been finding that the opiate epidemic is going hand-in-hand with these cases,” Feser added. “Where there’s grandchildren or children that are either stealing money to get their needs met or taking their pain medications from them and replacing them with placebos. That is happening way too much.”

How the program works is that representatives from the Center go into the courts and train people on how to identify elder abuse in situations where an older adult is being exploited by someone who should be helping them.

“When we started this program, we went out and we trained all the courts in the county, from supreme on down, eventually we expanded the program and began training throughout the county in places such as police and fire departments,” Nicole Parshall, a staff attorney for the Center explained. “We’re a single point of entry for elder abuse cases. We’re going out and training whomever will hear us speak, to identify if they know anyone, if you suspect elder abuse, refer them to us, which eventually lets us act as a single point of entry to conduct a global assessment of that person’s full scope of needs.”

When asked of the difference between adult protective services and the Elder Abuse Advocacy Program, Parshall stated that the APS scope is much more limited, that their priorities are making sure that the individual is safe; after that, their mandate ends. Elder Law can go deeper and they work closely together with APS to see that an individual is treated correctly.

The referral criteria to them is any older adult in Chautauqua County who is a survivor or suspected of being a survivor of elder abuse. They get referrals from survivors themselves, family members, adult protective services, law enforcement, district attorney’s office, courts, office of the aging, Salvation Army and other centers, just to name a few. According to Parshall, in the three years before they started this program, the organization had received a total of 12 elder abuse referrals over those three years. Since the start of this program in July of 2018, they’ve opened 37 cases, with an additional 20 cases that were referred, but not opened for various reasons, like the person may have not wanted help.

In addition to this training program, the grant has also helped to fund all the courts with wheel chairs, hearing aids, document magnifiers and needed travel funds to help people get to and from court if need be.

“The demographics are changing,” Feser stated. “Worldwide, it’s expected that by 2050, one out of five people will be over the age of 60, and that will be the first time in recorded history that age bracket is a higher amount of people than birth to 18. Our systems and structures are not built for that population. So we need programs like this and collaboration and working together to be prepared for that silver tsunami.”

Here in Chautauqua County there is a higher percentage of older adults according to Feser. Almost 20% of the residents here are aged 65 or older and that’s compared to a 15% statewide average. She went on to add that there has been a mass exodus of younger people in Chautauqua county, according to her, there aren’t the caregivers or the professional staff that’s needed to really do all this.

“It’s a community effort,” Parshall added. “We all need to check on our neighbors, check on our older relatives, to make sure this isn’t happening and people are getting the help that they need and deserve.”

To report suspected abuse, call Chautauqua County Protective Services in Dunkirk at 363-4447, Jamestown at 661-7447 or Mayville at 753-4447. For general information on services, call Chautauqua County Offices for the Aging in Dunkirk at 363-3865, Jamestown at 661-8940 and Mayville at 753-4471. For legal assistance from the Center for Elder Law & Justice call 261-3275.