Ageism: Abuse, Neglect, and Emergency Services
Three of a nine-part series of articles on ageism.
Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of a society is how that society treats those who are in the dawn of life – the children; those who are in the twilight of life – the elderly; and those who are in the shadow of life – the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
Creating a just society includes treating older people as equal members and making sure we are all connected to our communities as we age so that we can prevent and address elder abuse.
The FrameWorks Institute compares society to a “building that needs support beams that are interconnected, securely joined, and frequently maintained to remain strong. To create a just society, we need beams like services and programs that integrate older people into our communities.”
If we don’t have these services and programs in place or if they are weak, we will likely experience social isolation, which increases the likelihood of abuse and neglect.
One example of this is the story of Mary. Her adult son moved back home after a divorce and had an alcohol and drug addiction problem. Because of this, he was unable to find work and became financially dependent upon Mary. Constantly borrowing from her to feed his addictions, he reduced the vital resources that she needed for her own care and support in her retirement.
Lack of emergency preparedness plans and services has also caused older community members to experience abuse and neglect. The following case happened during the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001. According to the report Ageism in America by Dr. Robert Butler, “Older people were trapped for up to a week with no electricity, running water, telecommunications, information about what was happening and what they should do to prepare for rescue. Essential services such as Meals on Wheels, home health care, and prescription refills were not available to them.”
When we are socially isolated, the risk of elder abuse and neglect increases because no one is around to detect it or assist if it occurs. Social supports, such as good public transportation, can help by allowing us to get to places like community/senior centers and doctor’s offices. When we have these resources, we’re able to connect with the community and get the services we need.
When these crucial support services are not in place, it is less likely that someone will notice if we are being abused or neglected. When we are not connected to the community, it is likely that we will be overlooked by emergency services as well. A community should get to know who its at-risk, isolated people are through social services, police and other agencies that can identify and include them for community-wide emergencies.
If we are socially isolated, despite the fact that we live in the community, we are at risk of and disproportionately impacted by everyday emergencies such as extreme heat, extreme cold, and fires. If you have a neighbor who is an older adult, it could be lifesaving to check on them during temperature extremes.
“Adults ages 85 and older saw the largest decrease in fire death rate trends from 2007 to 2016, with a decline of 35 percent,” according to the U.S. Fire Administration. “Unfortunately, this group had the highest relative risk of dying in a fire. In 2016, adults ages 85 and over were 3.4 times more likely to die in a fire than the total population.”
As the saying goes, “Prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true when it comes to abuse and neglect. There are many resources that can help us understand and prevent abuse and neglect. Locally and regionally, the organization Someplace Safe has a 24/7 crisis hotline and provides safe shelter if needed. Their phone number is 1-800-974-3359, and their advocates are trained to help people escape abuse.
Law enforcement is more aware and better trained today than ever before to spot and intervene in elder abuse. Most communities have elder abuse report hotlines with an 800 number. In Otter Tail County, the phone number is 1-844-880-1574. Of course, if it’s an emergency, call 911.
We can strengthen our social structure by supporting our senior/community centers, improving public transportation and integrating community professionals so that older adults can participate in community life. Strengthening our social structure will help us reduce social isolation to overcome elder abuse and neglect so that we can live up to our national promise of justice for all.
See 2019 Ageism Series Bibliography for sources quoted.