What does elder abuse look like? Is it as simple as an unexplained bruise here and there, or are the signs sometimes more subtle? Elder care resources across the metro all offer similar advice: watch for the physical signs like bruises and sudden wounds, but also keep an eye on your loved ones’ behavior. Are they suddenly dropping out of their usual habits and pastimes? Have they just out of the blue made drastic changes to their power of attorney? Are they losing weight and not following through with their usual care plans, becoming more withdrawn and isolated suddenly and without explanation?
“Control is gained in isolation,” explained Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo. Victims of abuse are often isolated by their abusers as a means to keep them away from people or resources that would normally keep them safe.
Palumbo, who has been an advocate for elder justice for over ten years, said the signs of abuse against adults and children are often the same, and it’s in what isn’t said rather than what is. He always asks his clients three questions:
1) Are you afraid of anyone?
2) Is anyone taking your money?
3) Is anyone hurting you?
The most chilling answer, Palumbo said, is the silence.
“They won’t lie to you, but they won’t tell you either,” he said.
Palumbo became an assistant attorney in Anoka County over a decade ago. It was then, he said, that he started putting thought into representing the interests of vulnerable adults. His curiosity was piqued by the frequency of abuse cases his agency saw, and the conversations he had with the investigators he worked with.
“I thought ‘three times in one week? What is going on out there?’” he said.
After taking office as County Attorney in 2012, Palumbo undertook the founding of Stop Abuse and Financial Exploitation (SAFE) Initiative, which is meant to reduce elder abuse through policy, training, and education. Within the first year of the foundation, Palumbo and other SAFE partners created the documentary “Abused, Alone, Exploited,” which aired on TPT and can still be viewed online.
Volunteers helped create online resources for SAFE, all of which offer resources for first responders to educate them on signs of abuse, and how to react when they suspect something.
“The big thing that we’ve learned with SAFE is there was a lack of communication between social services and law enforcement,” said Palumbo. He used the specific example of a police officer he worked with who was on the scene of a drug bust. Law enforcement raided a home-turned-drug-den, and the officer came to realize the home did not belong to perpetrator, but an elderly relative instead. Instances like that are what SAFE was created for, to ensure first responders are educated on what to do, and connect them with resources afterward.
Palumbo continues to be an elder justice advocate, and does lectures on the matter across the metro. He always stresses the same things: visit often, look for warning signs, and listen. If you suspect anything is wrong, don’t hesitate to call the authorities. For more information on the Anoka County Attorney’s resources on elder abuse, and to view the documentary “Abused, Alone, Exploited,” visit www.anokacounty.us/1544/Understanding-Elder-Abuse.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to discuss it like this, but it’s a fact of life,” he said.
A tip-reporting line is available through the Elder Justice Center, a foundation which grew from the resources provided by SAFE, spearheaded by Amanda Vickstrom and other elder justice advocates. Katie Behrens, a representative from the Elder Justice Center, gave a short presentation to the Second Precinct Advisory Council earlier this summer, offering some raw facts about the severity of elder abuse in Minnesota.
Technically speaking, “elder abuse” is loosely defined, as there is no official age limit, and it can come in many different forms. What is most common is financial exploitation, where a victim is either deprived of access to their own money or directly stolen by someone acting as their beneficiary, whether they be a family member or caretaker. Domestic violence and emotional abuse are also common, and most often, according to Behrens, one type of abuse is usually accompanied by another.
What’s easier to classify is abuse of a vulnerable adult, as many victims of elder abuse are on a continuum of disabilities both physical and mental. According to Behrens, a vulnerable adult is someone who is an inpatient, or receives services or should be receiving services from a hospital or health service. The abuse itself is more solidly defined as knowingly depriving care to said vulnerable adults, and it has been a felony in Minnesota since 2012 (though it is still not a felony in many other states).
Victims know their abusers
Ten percent of adults over the age of 60 are victims of abuse in some form, and $3 billion are stolen from the elderly annually. Two-thirds of those victims know and trust their abusers. If the problem is so widespread, then why are cases so underreported?
“Denial, fear, dependency, shame?” Behrens speculated. A huge obstacle to people coming forward with their abuse is the fear of the loss of independence, and the idea that needing to depend on a care facility instead of someone who may be mistreating them at home is some sort of failure. “If we normalize these conversations, the more we can get it out there that institutional care is not the only option . . . we will explore every option if that is a concern.”
The Elder Justice Center exists to raise awareness, influence public policy, and provide direct services to victims of elder abuse in the form of advocacy and legal services. Conversation is the best way to prevent abuse. Resources for education on recognizing and addressing the signs of abuse can be found on their website, as well as contact information for those seeking direct aid.
The Elder Justice Center and SAFE are both built on a network of partnerships with senior living centers, Shirley Barnes at Crest View Lutheran Home in Columbia Heights explained.
“We all have the same passion for this,” she said. “[Crest View] has been a part of the SAFE initiative from the beginning.”
Since the inception of SAFE, Crest View has worked closely with the Anoka County Attorney’s office. Barnes explained that Crest View sees partnership as the best way to prevent instances of abuse; working through multiple organizations spreads information further, and makes more resources available to victims and their families. To Barnes, no one has to go it alone, and she advised that the best way to prevent neglect and abuse is to reach out to local senior communities. Even if an elder doesn’t want to leave their house to live in a care center, other options are available, such as adult daycare and other programs that foster community to break the cycle of isolation.
“So much abuse and neglect is going to happen behind the single family home where there is no one watching,” said Barnes. “It takes a neighbor to notice . . . We’re still in a world of ‘I don’t want to get involved, it’s not my business,’ but it is our business. We all have the same best interest in mind, and we can act as a resource. We can direct you to the right people.”
Isolation is the highest risk factoring into elder abuse. When a vulnerable adult lives alone, there is no one around to help with finances, meals, and to protect them from people looking to take advantage of them. Dan Johnson, CEO of Catholic Eldercare in Northeast, said it’s up to family members to be the bridge back to the world for isolated elders.
Catholic Eldercare offers outreach services available to families, or they can refer people to other agencies better suited to their needs depending on the situation. Johnson encouraged families to call if they have concerns that an elder family member is being exploited. Robin Haenze is Eldercare’s head of outreach, and can be reached at 612-605-2515.
“Don’t assume everything is going to go just like it always has, that Mom and Dad are doing fine,” Johnson said. “Don’t settle for just a phone call now and then, actually go visit. There comes a time when the children . . . just need to show up.”
Anoka County Attorney resources: anokacounty.us/1544/Understanding-Elder-Abuse
MN Adult Abuse Reporting Center: 844-880-1574
SAFE website: safemn.org
Elder Justice Center website: https://elderjusticemn.org/
Crest View website: https://www.crestviewcares.org/
Catholic Eldercare website: http://www.catholiceldercare.org/
Catholic Eldercare Outreach: 612-605-2515