Why We Must Have an Elder Justice Movement

By Daniel A. Reingold, President and CEO of RiverSpring Health; The Weinberg Center Team: Joy Solomon, Director and Managing Attorney; Deirdre Lok, Assistant Director and General Counsel; Malya Levin, Staff Attorney; Glendalee Olivera, Elder Abuse Specialist; Brooke Santoro, Community Outreach Specialist

At 92, Janet, a retired teacher, still lives in the Brooklyn apartment she and her husband purchased as newlyweds in the 1950s. Even after her husband passed away ten years ago, Janet was still a familiar presence in the community—singing in the church choir and leading meetings of a local quilting club.

Then one summer, Janet found out she had breast cancer. Her only possible caregiver was her 55-year old daughter, an undiagnosed manic-depressive who often self medicates with alcohol. Shortly after the daughter moved back in with Janet, she began helping herself to her mother’s ATM card and the pain medication her mother’s doctor had prescribed for the side effects of chemotherapy.

Soon, strange bills began to arrive at the house, but Janet, improperly medicated, weak from chemo and the psychic burden of her daughter’s anger, could not bring herself to open them.

Janet no longer makes it to church or quilting club and neighbors often report shouting coming from the family home. Friends have not intervened because they think it’s none of their business and what could they do?

Janet’s neighbors' silence is at the root of a crisis for her and millions of other older adults,

Ask a New Yorker if they support the global elder justice movement and they will probably say "yes." Ask them to define what elder justice means or how they might help, and most often silence is their response.  

According to the federal Administration of Community Living, an estimated five million older adults are abused, neglected or exploited every year in this country. This abuse could be physical, emotional, financial or even sexual, and is most often a combination of types and tactics, usually perpetrated by a family member or trusted friend.

Financial abuse is particularly rampant, with over 2.9 billion dollars taken from older adults every year. Strikingly, a 2011 study of older adults in New York State found that only one in twenty four cases of elder abuse are reported to law enforcement or social services agencies. Most abuse victims suffer in silence, out of sight of the network of social and government supports that might be able to assist them.

That’s where elder justice comes in. The elder justice movement begins by recognizing the systemic biases that exist which help abuse to begin and flourish undetected. Whether it’s ageist assumptions that older adults can’t reliably report abuse or our health care system that incentivizes interventional procedures over preventive care, a lack of support for the growing number of informal caregivers or the prevalent belief that youth is synonymous with value, powerful cultural paradigms allow elder abuse to thrive. Elder justice means shifting the conversation in all of these arenas, and advocating for change.

Stopping the Devastation

Elder justice also means recognizing the wide ranging and severe societal costs of elder abuse. The impact on victims themselves cannot be overstated. Victims are four times more likely to be admitted to a nursing home, three times more likely to be admitted to a hospital and more likely to die than counterparts who have not experienced abuse. This devastation continues to ripple outward. Abuse causes victims to become more dependent on caregivers, who then experience declines in their own physical, mental and financial health. Financial exploitation causes large economic losses that extend beyond the individual victim to families, businesses and government programs and increases reliance on federal programs such as Medicaid. The federal Elder Justice Roadmap, released in 2014, indicates that elder abuse prevention could save lives, keep people healthy and also yield major cost savings.

Ensuring that victims of elder abuse have a safe place to call home is a critical part of elder justice work. At the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, we provide safe shelter to victims of elder abuse who are not safe in their homes. Once they come through our doors, we are committed to providing victim-centered, holistic services. This means that our attorneys work with our clients to craft individualized legal plans based on their circumstances. If a client is too frail to get to court or sit on hard benches, we help them appear remotely using the city’s Access to Justice Project, or advocate for law enforcement, attorneys and even judges to come to them. Our social workers help clients process the trauma they have experienced and reconnect with positive aspects of their identities, as well as ensure they are connected to the services and community supports so critical to living safely and independently.  Our medical team provides the coordinated care so critical to healthy aging.

In 2006, the World Health Organization and the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse proclaimed June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Their goal was to bring elder abuse out of the shadows, and to raise its profile as a public health crisis. In the ten years since then, we have made a lot of progress in publicizing the issue of elder abuse, but much still needs to be done in terms of understanding and addressing its deep-rooted and multi-faceted causes and wide-ranging effects.

Elder justice means a paradigm shift in the way our culture views aging, its rewards and possibilities. Elder justice is checking in on elderly neighbors, refusing to allow them to disappear. Elder justice is creating support systems for the huge number of informal caregivers, ensuring that they have the resources to cope with the stress their roles inevitably include. These are huge goals. Supporting the elder justice movement means believing they are attainable and recognizing they are inextricably tied to the fight to end elder abuse. This June 15th, we challenge our fellow New Yorkers to make a tangible commitment towards these goals. Together, we can end elder abuse.