How You Can Fight Elder Abuse in Massachusetts

By Betsey Crimmins, Senior Attorney, Greater Boston Legal Services, Inc.

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An elderly parent is neglected and isolated by his adult child; a 92 year old woman is at risk for eviction after being fleeced by scammers and does not have enough money to pay her rent; an elderly couple in their nineties begin to physically abuse each other; a 71 year old woman with limited education and sensory disabilities is duped by her son into transferring her home to him;  a proud 86 year old veteran finds himself standing outside his home in his bathrobe clutching money and very disoriented.  These are just some examples of how elder abuse affects our families, friends, and neighbors every day in our communities. Elder abuse is a complex and multi-faceted problem which must be addressed by everyone who works with or cares about older adults. 

Elder abuse is a prevalent and growing problem across the Commonwealth. The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) estimates that up to five million elders suffer from some form of elder abuse each year, or about 1 in 8 Americans age 65 and older. Despite the magnitude and prevalence of this problem, elder abuse is often overlooked or not even acknowledged.  This is a crucial time to begin to address this problem in the communities where we live and work.

In its recent report, the Massachusetts Elder Protective Services Commission acknowledged that elder services networks are currently not meeting the complex needs of elder abuse victims.  Specifically, the report points out the need for collaborative teams and community-coordinated responses that emphasize prevention and public awareness.  Community-wide responses to the issue of elder abuse make sense for several reasons.  First, potential victims live, work, bank, and receive services in their own communities.  Second, local “help” entities such as the police, senior center, adult protective services, district attorney’s office, and legal services, know their communities and have often forged trust relationships with the community and with each other.  Personal relationships at the community level are essential to a successful response to elder abuse.

One year ago, the Elder Abuse Prevention Project of Greater Boston Legal Services was created in response to the fact that most of our elderly clients have an elder abuse issue embedded in their legal problems.  The primary goals of the Project are to focus on prevention and to raise the profile of this important issue.  Prevention is a key component in combatting elder abuse and our Project’s preventative efforts are focused on the dissemination of information, collaborative community-building efforts, and empowering elders.  To that end, we have developed consumer friendly preventative materials; an outreach training protocol; and a model community-wide response to elder abuse which we are working to replicate in communities across the state.

In the past year we have helped create the Arlington Elder Abuse Task Force, the Cambridge Elder Abuse Task Force, and the Woburn Elder Abuse Prevention Task Force.  In each community we have met with community leaders and elders and let them tell us what their most pressing issues are.  In Arlington, financial exploitation was the primary concern.  Our first venture was a community-wide forum on the issue of financial fraud and exploitation which drew 175 seniors. In Woburn, a group of elders who attended the first meeting talked about the toll that the opiate epidemic was taking on the children and grandchildren of their friends, resulting in multiple forms of elder abuse.  In Cambridge, one focus will be on the unique needs of elders from different cultures.  In each community we have also partnered with other community members who interact and establish trust relationships with older adults including local housing authorities, food pantries, hairdressers, members of faith communities, meals on wheels drivers, and home health aides. By tapping into these networks and forming partnerships, we have begun to create a coordinated and systemic response to elder abuse in each community.

What can we each do to prevent and combat elder abuse in our communities?  

  • First, it is critically important to learn to recognize the signs and risk factors of elder abuse. Signs can be dramatic, such as fresh bruises or an empty bank account, or subtle, like increased isolation or withdrawal.  Although elder abuse can and does happen to anyone, there are some specific risk factors to be aware of.  Elders with dementia or mental illness are at higher risk for abuse, as are elders living with and dependent upon caregivers, especially when their caregivers have their own host of problems such as lack of income, addiction, or mental illness.  In addition, elders from marginalized communities including linguistic minorities, communities of color, and LGBT elders all have unique risk factors. 
  • Next, we must promote a heightened awareness about this serious problem – education is the best method of prevention. Local resources such as public libraries, senior centers, and PSA’s on local cable television can be utilized to get the word out. Local media in particular is a great way to reach homebound and isolated elders.  
  • Finally, it is also essential to know how to access help for someone who has been abused or whom you suspect has been abused.  There is help available for every elder in the Commonwealth who may be a victim of abuse.  There are adult protective services available to everyone age 60 or older regardless of income status.  You can and should file a report if you suspect that an older adult is being abused.  

Elder abuse is a law enforcement issue, a social justice issue, and a public health issue.  It is also, ultimately, a local issue which undermines the well-being and healthy aging of valued members of our communities on a daily basis.  As more people live longer and age in their homes and communities, we need to work diligently to ensure that all elders in Massachusetts have the opportunity to live healthy, meaningful, self-directed, and dignified lives free of abuse and neglect.

I encourage you to click on the above links for more information. If you have questions or would like a presentation for your agency or staff, please contact me at bcrimmins@gbls.org.

Join the NCEA Elder Abuse listserv to share and solicit information from other professionals working to improve prevention and response efforts for elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

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