Act Now for Elder Justice: WITNESS Takes a Stand

America's children are protected under the Child Abuse Prevention Act 1974; women's rights are ensured under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Why wouldn't our seniors have the same security?
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America's children are protected under the Child Abuse Prevention Act 1974; women's rights are ensured under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Why wouldn't our seniors have the same security? Now's the time to pass the Elder Justice Act. You can help.

Last week, news broke that residents at a California nursing home had been drugged to the point of oblivion -- and death -- by nurses who opted to mute their patients rather than address their needs. Flying under the radar since 2003, "caretakers" like nurse Gwen Hughes had been administering anti-psychotics to sedate those they had committed to protect.

This method of shutting patients down has been likened to physical restraints now outlawed or ruled unethical, but officials turned on their blinders until reports that elderly patients were literally overdosed with lethal amounts. Here's a case of out of sight out of mind -- proof that denial and ignorance will continue to render the realities of elder abuse invisible until we force ourselves to see.

WITNESS is making sure we look. The powerful nonprofit that partners with NGOs around the world to visually document human rights abuses has set it's North American focus on the rights of elders in this country -- and the grave physical, emotional and financial assaults that happen every single day. The organization teamed with the National Council on Aging (NCOA) to help spread the truth about what they call "America's silent crisis." By arming constituents with the tools and training to create video testimonials, NCOA and WITNESS are making sure that policy-makers see the faces and experience the stories that make ignoring impossible.

Kelly Matheson, WITNESS's Program Coordinator for North America, told Tonic, "It's an issue that affects all of us. Doesn't matter what our social or economic situation is. With the aging of the population, with the greying of America, the problem is only going to get worse. And with the economic downturn ... it's only going to get worse."

"Call your representative and tell them to make sure that the Elder Justice Act is included in health reform legislation," Matheson says. "The Senate has done it; [the House needs] to do it too."

(Time is running out! Be sure to take action today! Search for your representative via zip code, make a call expressing support -- five minutes is all it takes.)

Get Real

Imagine children having no legal protection and restitution for abuse by their parents or babysitters or doctors. Would you stand by and let a child too helpless to fight back endure violations and trauma? Before the Child Abuse Prevention Act of 1974, there was no guideline for legal protection.

What about victims of domestic violence. Would it ever be your hope that an abused wife be told she had no legitimate grounds in a court of law? Hard to believe that the Violence Against Women Act didn't pass until 1994.

Looking back, these laws are no-brainers. Why, then, would there be any hesitation in enacting standards for care and treatment of our elderly population? As baby boomers get on in years, the number of adults who will soon be needing treatment, housing and medical attention, who face the onset of dementia and disability, are increasing. The Elder Justice Act heading to Congress soon promises to be the first effort of its kind, establishing a framework for elder rights and protection.

The act works in three parts: provides awareness that the problem exists, educates on how to spot and report incidents, enables legal prosecution through funding. "First and more importantly," Matheson emphasizes, "what the Elder Justice Act does is make a national statement that it is vital that we as Americans protect the physical and economic security of our elders."

In the short film "An Age for Justice: Confronting Elder Abuse in America" Cynthia Borgstrom talks about her aunt, Vicky Bastion (pictured above), whose grandson made her feel so unsafe in her house that she installed a metal security door on her bedroom. Without the clarity to accept help from her niece, Bastion may never have initiated action on her own. Elders often feel frightened and threatened, ashamed or in denial -- and that's assuming they are still capable of fully understanding unsafe circumstances. In the video, Robin Sanow of Adult Protective Services (an organization that hopes for increased resources should the act pass) says, "We have so many cases ... where a caregiver slowly takes over and the elderly person becomes the prisoner in their own home."

Think it couldn't happen to you or your loved one?

No one ever does.

"Because I'm Old, She Thinks I'm Stupid."

Around the time that his father, James, began showing signs of dementia, Bob Lee wasn't able to spend as much time as he'd have liked in the same town. Unable to manage his dad's daily needs, he hired a friend -- his dad's next-door neighbor Fenita Caldwell-- to help run errands, take him to the doctor, be a near-by source of support. He found comfort in knowing that his dad was not alone.

Meanwhile, 46-year old Caldwell was telling friends she was on her way to being "the next Anna Nicole Smith," using the elder Lee's rent checks to pay for her weekend getaways and dragging him to a jewelry shop to charge a diamond ring and Rolex watch. Her spending sprees slid by Bob for months; James believed there was nothing he could do.

The younger Lee was shocked at the impending turn of events: "She actually filed charges against me with a social worker, saying I wasn't taking care of my dad," Bob told Tonic. "I tell him the truth and they send out a social worker from Santa Cruz Adult Protective Services. She actually sits down and interviews my dad without any comments from me and gets the true story of what happened here -- that he didn't give permission for his credit card, that he thought the checks were for rent, she took him down to the jewelry store ... "

And even with this direct testimony, the case dragged on. According to Lee, the legal fees ended up costing him upward of $10,000. He told Tonic that the result was a 30-day jail sentence and three years probation restricting Caldwell's time spent with anyone over 65 -- mild consequences for, Lee puts it, breaking James' spirit and his heart. The Elder Justice Act would allow more funding for prosecutions and stricter sentences for penalties.

The saving grace in this case was James' period of lucidity and courage allowing him to speak honestly about the abuse. Had dementia, disorientation or shame kept him from revealing the facts to his son and his case worker, chances are there would be no grounds for prosecution -- and Fenita Caldwell would face no consequences for her crimes. Bob is certain that the ordeal cut his father's life short, telling Tonic that the violation of trust and loyalty had "basically worn down his desire to live."

Bob clearly remembers his father telling him: "Because I'm old, she thinks I'm stupid." There couldn't be a more false reflection for a man who'd survived Pearl Harbor while in the Navy, who never missed a day of work in 35 years working at the Yellow Pages, and who raised a son who won't stop fighting for his cause.

Everyone's Affected: Act Now!

It's possible that we're in denial about our own states of mortality. Aging, fading capacities, loss of power and strength -- these are realities facing anyone who's fortunate enough to live a long life. All of the money and Botox in the world can't change that, but identifying the problem and taking action to address it can change our futures.

Part of the problem is the lack of clear definition of what elder abuse really is. Matheson admits that more often than not, people assume it is limited to beatings and physical violence. What we're learning, however, is the breadth of violations and injuries from financial, mental and emotional arenas that are equally as scarring. Elders are left spiritually bankrupt, psychologically defeated, and monetarily drained. A lifetime of hard work is pulled out from under them, leaving their next of kin with next to nothing. Worse yet, their sense of dignity is damaged and their will to live fades.

Consider these facts from the NCOA Elder Abuse Fact Sheet:

  • At least 11% of Americans over 60 years of age have experienced elder abuse this past year.
  • Researchers estimate that2.6 billion are lost annually as a result of financial abuse toward elders.
  • Five of six elder abuse cases go unreported. Not surprisingly, reported abuse cases are climbing every year as the elderly population grows.

Throughout the project, Matheson was approached by coworkers, friends and family members who shared stories of abuse directed to their elderly love ones. "It's not just a crime, it's not just a family member. If you really sit down and talk to anybody about this, you'll find that they've probably been touched by [elder abuse] somehow." She confides that her grandmother was abused by a scam artist who sold her two funerals as soon as she started getting dementia -- a story she never knew until long after the fact.

Seeing the Elder Justice Act pass would be, as Matheson puts it, "making the statement that we care, as a country. It provides federal leadership. It helps provide coordinated efforts between local, state and federal officials. It helps us understand elder abuse, it helps us prevent it, detect it where it's happening and prosecute when it does happen."

Watch the entire video here. Then take two minutes to make a call that could help to ensure the rights -- and the respect -- of all of us down the line.

Important note from Tonic: Time is running out to contact your representative! It only takes a minute to have your voice heard. Speak up for your friends, your family, your neighbors and yourself. No one is immune to getting older and we all deserve protection and dignity. Contact your local representative right away to encourage Congress to pass the Elder Justice Act!

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