Elder abuse an ‘invisible’ problem in Snohomish County
Though many aren’t aware of it, elder abuse is a problem in Snohomish County.
A panel of experts discussed on Oct. 23 the invisible issue of abuse of older adults in Snohomish County due to underreporting and a shortage of resources, as well as the county’s efforts to prevent elder abuse and provide services to victims.
The discussion, held at Harbour Pointe Retirement & Assisted Living Center in Mukilteo, was attended by about 45 residents and non-residents.
Experts included Vicci Hilty, director of the Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, Mukilteo Police Chief Rex Caldwell and Nathalie Gauteron of Senior Services of Snohomish County.
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, it is estimated that as many as 5 million older Americans are victims of abuse, neglect, abandonment and/or exploitation every year. That is more than 12 percent of the elderly population.
For every case of abuse that is reported, statistics show that four more go unreported.
“It’s obviously a very significant and under-recognized public health and human rights issue,” Gauteron said. “For some of us, we’re very aware and it feels like ‘under-recognized’ isn’t even possible, knowing that so many vulnerable adults are at risk of being victimized.”
In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of adults 65 years and older in Snohomish County was 73,400 or about 10.3 percent of the total population. Statistically, every year an estimated 9,000 older adults are victims of abuse in the county.
As life expectancy and the age of the baby boomers increases, the elder population is on the rise. It is estimated that by 2030, 20 percent of Snohomish County’s population will be in this age group.
This increase means the challenges with elder abuse the county faces could get much worse.
Six years ago, the Elder Abuse Task Force of Snohomish County was created by Adult Protective Services, Snohomish County, Domestic Violence of Snohomish County and Senior Services of Snohomish County to address the local elder-abuse problem.
“The four of us came together and said ‘This is the tsunami that is heading our way, and this county is not ready for it,” Hilty said. “Our population is getting older and they are vulnerable, and we have got to be there [for them].”
In many cases, older adults are harmed by family, an acquaintance or a caregiver. The mistreatment can hurt their dignity, financial security and cause injury or premature death.
Financial exploitation is the most common case of elder abuse reported in Mukilteo, where abusers use, control or withhold property, income, trust funds or other resources.
“People try to do cons, do scams and try to make money from vulnerable adults through deception,” Caldwell said. “They may get phone calls or mail, or unfortunately, sometimes its family members who are involved.”
For example, Caldwell explained, if your ‘grandson’ calls from a Mexican jail asking to be wired bail money, it’s probably a scam. If a ‘bank’ calls asking to verify your Social Security number, that’s probably a scam. Hang up on them, he said.
While the Adult Protective Services investigates cases of possible abuse, it lacks the financial and staff resources to successfully manage the issue, according to a 2011 Snohomish Health District study.
Many cases of abuse are unreported due to lack of community awareness. Even if they are reported, few shelters for older adults who are being abused exist because most focus on women, children and the homeless.
Although there are no easy solutions, the task force is not giving up.
“We’re not letting this go,” Hilty said. “If you ever need someone, you do have people out here who care. And you do need to report and you can call us and it is safe. We are confidential and we will help you.”
Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County is the only confidential shelter for domestic violence victims and their children in the county. It will soon increase its available number of beds from 15 to 52.
DVS is also looking into what it can do to advocate for the victims of elder abuse and increase the services it provides to them. One goal is to set up a support group.
Hilty has met with several women who attend an elder abuse support group. She said many of them aren’t planning on leaving their situation because there aren’t many alternatives.
She said these women ask themselves difficult questions, such as: “How do I deal with that if the abuse is coming from my child, and I’m not willing to get rid of my child?”
Or this: “How do I live with the fact that this wonderful person I’ve been married to for so many years of my life now has Alzheimer’s or is now on some type of medication that is causing them to be more aggressive, more assertive – things they’ve never been in their entire life – and I’m not going to leave them now?”
Senior Services of Snohomish County provides programs and services to older adults and those with disabilities. Its programs specific to abuse of vulnerable adults include assistance for victims of crimes, outreach to increase awareness and tools for prevention.
Senior Services of Snohomish Countys has also scheduled a conference on elder abuse for April 16 at Rosehill Community Center.
Gauteron said Senior Services gets several calls a day from caregivers, older adults and concerned family members about elder abuse – and especially personal or financial exploitation.
“That program is under funded, and with funding cuts, we still pride that as one of our most-valued and close-to-the-heart programs to work with,” she said.
If an older adult reports abuse, Hilty said it is important to believe them, listen to them and refer them to services available.
Mandatory reporters are required by law to report if they see or expect elder abuse. These include social workers, law enforcement officers, doctors and employees of retirement homes and other DSHS-licensed facilities.
“If we get a report, we’re going to take it very seriously,” Caldwell said. “Our No. 1 priority is the safety of residents or victims who are involved in these cases.
“If you see something, say something. Please report it to the police. Give us an opportunity to work on whatever the situation might be.”
If you suspect a vulnerable adult is being abused, call 1-866-ENDHARM to report it. If they need urgent help, call 911.
Go to www.adsa.dshs.wa.gov for more information about elder abuse, prevention, additional resources and programs to support vulnerable adults.
The following are warning signs of elder abuse:
• Unexplained injuries or behavior – they are quiet, withdrawn or careful
• Fear of a person or certain situations
• Socially isolated from others
• Deserted in home or left without basic life necessities
• Sudden decline in physical appearance
• Untreated injuries or health problems
• Unsafe living conditions
• Disappearance of possessions or property
• Sudden transfer of money, unauthorized use of bankcards, and/or forged signatures on checks
• Undue influence or coercion