By Akila Gibbs

Akila Gibbs 2015Elder abuse is any deliberate or negligent act that causes harm or serious risk to a vulnerable older adult.

According to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, there has been an enormous increase in reports of elder abuse nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports range from financial scams by people older adults don’t know to incidents of violence by family members and others.

The COVID-19 crisis already disproportionately impacts older adults, mostly due to age-related vulnerabilities resulting from pre-existing health conditions. Now the crisis can create an environment in which older adults are especially susceptible to abuse. The abuse can be financial, emotional, sexual and physical, and it can take place in private residences as well as nursing homes.

In other words, the social isolation that by all accounts protects at-risk older adults from exposure to COVID-19 potentially exposes some of them to elder abuse in all its forms.

Common themes nationwide in recent weeks have included family members threatening to put older relatives in nursing homes and walk away if the older adults refuse to sign over checks or turn over valuables; threatening and carrying out physical or sexual violence; and scammers preying on vulnerable, isolated and lonely older adults to get their credit card or bank account information.

Signs of financial abuse may include the sudden appearance of large credit card balances, unusual ATM withdrawals, insufficient-fund charges, concern or confusion about missing funds and valuables, uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money, checks written to someone the family doesn’t know, especially with “loan,” “gift” or other suspicious words in the memo line, forged or suspicious signatures on documents, or new and unusual relationships.

Signs of physical neglect and abuse may include bedsores, poor hygiene, dehydration, unexplained bruises, burns or cuts, sprained ligaments or broken bones, unusual weight loss or unattended medical needs.

Signs of sexual abuse may include bruising or soreness near breasts and genitals, bruising, bleeding or soreness in genital and anal areas, and sexually transmitted diseases.

As vulnerable older adults stay home in isolation to reduce exposure to COVID-19, they are finding that critically important social systems such as senior centers, adult daycare programs, social gatherings with friends, and congregations at churches and temples are not possible during the pandemic. These social systems are critical points of interaction for identifying elder abuse and exploitation.

Given this unfortunate and frightening reality, it is of utmost importance for residents in every neighborhood to reach out and pay special attention to what may be happening to older adults in their vicinity and, if something doesn’t seem right, report it to local law enforcement or Los Angeles County Adult Protective Services. Many older adults are too afraid to report elder abuse themselves.

If you suspect elder abuse, never, ever attempt to confront the abuser. That is the job of trained law enforcement officers and APS social workers. The role for the rest of us is to document every instance of suspected elder abuse with as many details as possible so law enforcement and/or APS can deliver strong cases to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

At the Pasadena Senior Center, we are doing everything we can to stay connected with older adults in the greater Pasadena area. For example, dozens of activities, classes, celebrations and timely discussions are offered online through Zoom. While it’s not the same as coming to the center and enjoying camaraderie with other older adults in large and small gatherings, the Zoom options enable our members and non-members to stay connected differently under the circumstances. Visit www.pasadenaseniorcenter.org for a full list of Zoom opportunities, many of which are free.

Through our Telephone Reassurance Program, which has increased significantly since the pandemic began, specially trained volunteers call older adults up to five days a week who have signed up for this free program and specified how often they want to be contacted. The volunteers engage them in conversation and listen carefully for clues that something may be wrong, even if it is depression and loneliness due to mandated isolation, or even worse scenarios. Anyone 50 and older may sign up for this free program by calling (626) 795-4331.

Staying engaged with older adults while physically distancing adds important safeguards for preventing elder abuse. I want to encourage everyone reading this, no matter what your age, to reach out to older adults in your family and your neighborhood, especially those who live alone or are frail. Call, send an email or card, or knock on the door to ask how they are doing, what their needs are and whether they are experiencing any unusual treatment or behavior from relatives or others. Offer to stay in touch regularly during this challenging time of isolation.

Elder abuse is against the law in California, and penalties can range from up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $6,000 for misdemeanors and up to nine years or more in state prison for felonies. Generally speaking, felony elder abuse causes serious bodily harm or even death; misdemeanor elder abuse is often defined as endangering an older adult’s life or health, but to a lesser degree than a felony. The District Attorney’s Office decides whether elder abuse rises to the level of a felony based on the circumstances of each case, or whether it is a misdemeanor charge.

It is up to every one of us to be responsible community members, caring neighbors and faithful loved ones during this difficult time of isolation. The well-being of older adults depends on all of us, so if you see something, please say something.

Akila Gibbs is the executive director of the Pasadena Senior Center.

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Phone: (626) 795-4331
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Pasadena Senior Center
85 East Holly Street
Pasadena, CA 91103