Home > About > A Silent Crisis: Elder Abuse and Justice in America

A Silent Crisis: Elder Abuse and Justice in America

My grandmother’s life intersected squarely with the unprecedented rise in life expectancy for all elders. This rise has also led to one of our greatest silent crises: elder abuse.

About same time Alzheimer’s began to cloud my grandmother’s once sharp mind, she heard a knock on the door of her 3rd floor apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. She opened it to find a friendly salesman selling John F. Kennedy half-dollars made out of pure gold in a frame with a blue velvet backing. They made an exchange –she handed him a check for $900 and the swindler gave her one dollar in coins.

ELDER ABUSE IN THE UNITED STATES

For millions of elderly people in the United States just like my grandmother, living longer has also meant living in silent fear, battered and beaten, preyed upon, often quieted by shame. Elder abuse is a prolific problem that comes in many forms – physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, with many elders suffering more than just one type of abuse. Of the five million elders estimated to suffer abuse in the U.S. alone each year, the vast majority are subject to multiple forms of mistreatment. They are also three times more likely to die prematurely than those who are not victimized.

Yet, elder abuse is not perceived as a national tragedy. No one talks about it. Silence remains, in part, because many of our elders are isolated by and dependent on those who hurt them, and the perceived shame and stigma of disclosing that they are suffering at the hands of their own caregiver can act as a powerful silencer. But abuse also stays hidden because many older Americans don’t have the means or the capacity to report it.

At the rare times when elder abuse is publicly discussed, the conversations usually feature the voices Elder Justice advocates, social workers or journalists. A typical example is this CBS News report from 2006. Only occasionally do we get a glimpse into the elders’ views which can be seen in this video taken at an elder justice rally.

Insights from these experts are critical in the fight to secure justice for older Americans but so is the wisdom from these elders themselves, and to date their voices have been absent from the debate that affects them most directly.

I was surprised to learn how deeply buried this issue is because elder abuse touches us all. It cuts across gender, social, racial, ethnic, economic and geographic lines – yet it’s rarely mentioned in social justice or human rights circles nationally or even internationally. Key UN documents from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Millennium Development Goals omit any mention of age. And here at home the U.S Congress has yet to pass comprehensive federal legislation to protect our oldest members of society, placing it 20 years behind advocacy to protect children from abuse and 10 years behind the work to end domestic violence.

THE ELDER JUSTICE COALITION

To address this colossal fissure in our laws, more than 500 members of the Elder Justice Coalition (EJC) have been vigilantly working over the course of the last decade to secure the passage of the Elder Justice Act (EJA) through Congress. Passing this Act will provide us with a foundation from which we can begin to protect our society’s elders because it will provide long-needed support for programs to help us understand how to prevent and detect abuse, intervene where it happens, treat victims with dignity and respect, and fairly prosecute perpetrators.

Yet despite the EJA’s principled objectives and many years of effort, one of the authors of the Act, Marie-Therese Connolly explains, “Comprehensive federal laws to combat child abuse and domestic violence have had an immense impact for decades. By contrast, the relatively uncontroversial Elder Justice Act has languished (in Congress) since 2002.” With the recent changes in Washington, now is the time to pass this act and give America’s elders the security, dignity and equality they deserve.

A NEW WITNESS PARTNERSHIP with the NATIONAL COUNCIL ON AGING

So why is this important to WITNESS? We are partnering with the National Council on Aging (NCOA) – which has been working on behalf of disadvantaged and vulnerable Elders for over 60 years – to bring the voices of Older Americans to this debate, heighten the visibility of Elder abuse, and end Congressional complacency. In addition to securing passage of the EJA, WITNESS and NCOA will work with Elder Justice organizations across the country, training activists in strategic video advocacy planning and giving them the skills necessary to collect stories of abuse to bring Elder Justice into the national conversation.

Once footage from across the country has been gathered and edited, we will collaborate to reach key Congressional representatives, the national media and our citizenry with compelling stories which will force us to face our elders, end our collective denial and pass the EJA.

YOU TOO CAN STAND UP FOR OUR ELDERS

WITNESS and NCOA are just beginning work on the planning of this video advocacy campaign. We’d like you to join in as we move forward with this campaign to pass the Elder Justice Act and showcase the voices of older Americans:

• Return to the Hub Blog for updates on the production process in the weeks and months ahead

• Sign up for the Video for Change newsletter for updates on the Elder Justice Campaign

• Read more about the work of the NCOA at http://www.ncoa.org, and

• Visit the site of the Elder Justice Coalition at http://www.elderjusticecoalition.com/

Most of all though, we ask you to listen as we bring the voices of American’s elders to you throughout this campaign. Please hear what they have to say. Respect their voice. Value their wisdom. Add yours.

[This post was written by Nicole Schilit, WITNESS’ North America Program Intern, and Kelly Matheson, North America Program Coordinator]

This post originally appeared on WITNESS’ Hub.

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