I am a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience, and yet my parents became victims of elder abuse. I should have known better, and I live with the guilt. Read my story. When I was starting as a young social worker, I remember being offered a placement in an old age home. That’s what we called it then. I cringed and turned it down. My supervisor was trying to understand my reaction, and I blurted out, “Why would I want to look into the mirror of my life.” It frightened me. The wrinkled skin, the sagging body, the slowing down of the mind, and of course, becoming dependant on others. There’s no beauty nor glory in old age. I witnessed my parents decline. Once, vibrant functioning members of society, intellectuals respected for their successful careers and accomplishments they now needed assistance and care. Unfortunately, they lived a plane ride away from their children, and so began the cycle of a constant revolving door of different home attendants. I had no choice but to believe that these caretakers would treat my parents with the dignity and respect they deserved. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The debate began, facility or round the clock care at home? My dad’s dementia, I was told made it necessary to place him in a facility. He was becoming a danger to himself and others. My mom had the early signs of Alzheimer’s. With a heavy heart, we found a home for him. I rotated with my brother and other family members and we visited at least once a month. My first visit left me horrified. The patients were left for hours on end in their soiled diapers. If they couldn’t feed themselves, they didn’t eat. Does this constitute abuse? You bet it does. Bring left unattended and neglected is both physical and emotional abuse. Unattended bedsores can lead to septic shock, not to mention the pain experienced by the patient. Fortunately for my family, we pooled together all our resources sought out our own home health, and we moved him back home. The plot thickens. I made the rounds of all the agencies, interviewed the candidates, and finally settled on one. I made my monthly announced visits, and all seemed well. I breathed a sigh of relief and was able to focus on my family and my job.
Not so fast, as they say, and don’t claim victory yet. I decided to make an unannounced visit after a credit card company had called me and wanted to verify my mother’s recent purchase of living room and bedroom furniture. When I got to their home and opened the door, I found my parents alone. I was shocked. I was sure the attendant, I’ll call her Joan was taking out the trash. So I waited. Hours went by. When she finally pulled up, she was stunned to find me there. She blurted out some lame excuse, but what was really going on was she was double dipping. She had another job. She knew we were absentee and so it worked for her. As to the recent purchases she admitted to them and was planning to make payments.
Mom, the once fierce warrior who could silence an auditorium of 1000 kids, was now at the mercy of her caretakers. She presented as frail gaunt and frightened. I noticed bruises on her arms, which the caretaker stated was due to a recent fall. I questioned mom, who appeared too scared to speak. That was it. I knew what I had to do. I became her voice and advocate. Take the time folks to notice the warning signs. Be the voice of those who can no longer speak for themselves. Here are the facts; 1 in 10 Americans 60 and older have experienced some form of elder abuse, yet only one in 14 are actually reported. The elderly are our most vulnerable population. Abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, neglect, or financial profiteering. The signs are there, but somehow we misread them. These are some of the warning signs: Being malnourished, poor hygiene, bed sores, unexplained injury, frequent visits to an emergency room, symptoms of depression, suffering from anxiety, making up stories of how an injury occurred, hesitant to talk freely, and the elderly person provides lavish gifts or money to a caretaker.
I urge you not to allow this to happen to you. Let’s open up a dialogue. Email me, Rena Laniado or Tam Lawrence and become a voice for those that are silent.