The honorable Judge Robert N. Rusu of Mahoning County Probate Court stood before a community forum on abuse of the elderly in the courthouse rotunda Friday and hammered this point home: “We need to do better to stop this abuse before it happens.”
Judge Rusu couldn’t be more correct. Documented cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of our state’s vulnerable senior citizens age 60 and older continue to escalate. In 2017, the state’s county departments of Job and Family Services reported 16,241 documented incidents, an 11 percent increase over five years ago.
If nothing is done, those deplorable and lamentable numbers are sure to rise simply given the demographic changes spurred on by the graying of America.
In the Buckeye State, the number of adults older than 60, which stands at about 2.2 million, is expected to soar to 3.3 million by 2030, according to a study by the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University of Ohio. In Mahoning County, that same study projects 34 percent of the population will be seniors by 2030, up from 27 percent today.
As seniors’ ranks continue to grow, so, too, must quality-of-life concerns that directly affect them, not the least of which is elder abuse and combating it in any of its many despicable forms.
What’s even more troubling, however, is that elder abuse remains a grossly underreported crime. Only 1 in 23 of elder- abuse cases overall and only 1 in 44 cases of financial exploitation are reported to authorities, the National Center for Elder Abuse reports.
Given those grim findings, June’s international observance of Elder Abuse Awareness Month should take on added significance that translates into difference-making action.
The World Health Organization defines elder abuse as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”
The Ohio Department of JFS says it deals with myriad types of abuse reports from victims, their families and loved ones. They include neglect by others, self-neglect, financial exploitation and sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
RECOGNIZE SIGNS OF ABUSE
Because so many victims are too proud to reveal that they unwittingly let others take advantage of them, it is up to all of us to recognize the most common signs of abuse, neglect or exploitation and report them to authorities.
Toward that end, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has issued alerts warning Ohioans to be on the lookout for any of many potential signs of maltreatment toward seniors.
Those include scratches, cuts, bruises and other visible evidence of physical harm; sudden and inexplicable behavioral or mood changes; caregivers who refuse to allow visitors to see the adult alone; hazardous or unsanitary living conditions and unexplained, sudden transfers of assets or finances to another person.
Despite many positive trends such as increased state and federal funding for elder-abuse prevention, the mistreatment of seniors remains low on the list of public-policy priorities, a report issued last year by the FrameWorks Institute asserts.
“There’s a widespread fatalistic notion in our country that nothing can really be done’ to prevent elder abuse, but that couldn’t be more wrong,” said Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, which helped fund the report. Fortunately for Ohioans, some state legislators are taking Fulmer’s point to heart.
ELDER JUSTICE ACT IN OHIO
State Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, has introduced House Bill 78, popularly known as the Elder Justice Act. It includes reforms to laws governing procedures of the JFS and Adult Protective Services in all counties to better safeguard seniors.
For example, the bill adds financial harm to the list of violations against an elderly person that trigger reporting to the county JFS for investigation and prosecution. Its provisions also require the state to create and manage a registry to identify patterns of elder abuse and creates a commission to regularly study and issue recommendations on strategies to help local communities combat such abuse.
A similar bill won House passage but died in the Senate last session despite its strong endorsement by Attorney General Mike DeWine. HB 78 should be a priority for state lawmakers to move out of the House Aging and Long Term Care Committee, where it’s languished for months, and toward full passage by year’s end.
During this Elder Abuse Awareness Month, clearly we must muster up more than mere awareness. This month and every month, we must commit to act to lessen the scope of these pernicious and heartless crimes that rob our state’s proud older residents of their hard-earned dollars and well-deserved dignity.