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Elder Care: Elder abuse - safeguarding the vulnerable

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Mother lives with one child and another child expresses concern that mom’s diet contains a large amount of sweets, even though mom is diabetic. An older adult neighbor’s home is run-down and the neighbor, on the rare occasions he comes outside, appears extremely thin and disheveled. An adult daughter is observed yelling at her father for going outside to get the mail.

Are these cases of elder abuse and/or neglect? Do they need to be reported, and if so, to whom?

The abuse and neglect of older adults and adults with disabilities are complex topics that have been gaining increasing awareness, especially since the 1970s. All 50 states recognize this issue and have enacted laws designed to prevent and reduce the incidence of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

A lack of one national policy sometimes creates confusion about the definition of elder abuse and the resulting enforcement of individual state statutes. Pennsylvania’s definitions are as follows, as taken from the Oct. 7, 2010 Adult Protective Services Act:

  • Abuse (One or more of the following): “the infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or punishment with resulting physical harm, pain or mental anguish; the willful deprivation by a caregiver of goods or services which are necessary to maintain physical or mental health; sexual harassment, rape or abuse”
  • Exploitation: “An act or course of conduct by a caregiver or other person against an adult or an adult’s resources, without the informed consent of the adult or with consent obtained through misrepresentation, coercion or threats of force, that results in monetary, personal or other benefit, gain or profit for the perpetrator or monetary or person loss to the adult.”
  • Sexual abuse: “Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing or attempting to cause rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault or incest” (as defined by Pennsylvania crime statutes).
  • Neglect: “The failure to provide for oneself or the failure of a caregiver to provide goods, care or services essential to avoid a clear and serious threat to the physical or mental health of an adult.”

Thirty states currently require certain groups of individuals to report suspected elder abuse. In Pennsylvania, these individuals include the administrators and all employees of nursing homes, personal care homes, domiciliary care homes, home care agencies, adult day programs, residential treatment facilities and organizations that use public funds to provide care for adults in licensed or unlicensed settings.

Sixteen states have universal reporting laws through which everyone is required to report suspected elder abuse. The general public of our Commonwealth who do not fit into the category of mandated reporters as noted above are encouraged to voluntarily report suspected incidents of elder abuse.

If an individual is uncertain about whether or not to report a situation, it is important to remember the following considerations:

  • Proof is not required. It is not the reporter’s responsibility to provide proof of the abuse. A reasonable suspicion of abuse is enough.
  • Reporters remain anonymous. The victim and alleged perpetrator are not aware of the source of a report of suspected elder abuse.
  • Reporters are protected. Under the Adult Protective Services Act, all reporters of suspected abuse situations are immune from civil and criminal liability unless the report was made with malicious intent.

Reports about suspected elder abuse should be made regardless of whether the victim lives in a private home or a residential care facility. Reports can be made in two ways. Pennsylvania has a statewide Elder Abuse Hotline: 1-800-490-8505. Reports can also be called to your local office of the Area Agency on Aging. Both options are available 24/7.

The division of the Area Agency on Aging that is designated to handle these reports is called Adult Protective Services (APS). Next week’s article will explain the history and functioning of APS.

When a report of suspected abuse involves sexual abuse, serious physical injury, serious bodily injury or a suspicious death, mandated reporters in Pennsylvania must also immediately notify law enforcement, in addition to APS.

Tragically, elder abuse is a worldwide concern. Annually, June 15 is designated as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This day is a call to action to educate ourselves about the who, what, when, where and how of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. Through education, we can be empowered for the prevention and recognition of these situations and understand the measures available to protect our loved ones and all who are vulnerable.

Learn more about the article’s author, and other community education opportunities, at www.keystoneelderlaw.com. Check out the book, “Long Term Care Guide: Essential Tools for Solving the Elder Care Puzzle,” at the Whistlestop Bookshop or Amazon, and see Keystone’s free directory of services for older adults at www.mypeaceguide.com. Keystone Elder Law has offices in Mechanicsburg and Carlisle. Call 717-697-3223 for a free telephone consultation.

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