Saturday, June 15, 2013

Today is World Elder Abuse Day

In a busy, self-centered, obsessive culture, much is hidden in plain sight. It’s not just those things in the shadows or the closets. It’s those in front of us, those for which we have eyes to see but not a will to acknowledge.

Oftentimes it’s those people in the shadows or the closets of their own lives whose challenges we recognize the least when they are standing right in front of us…hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps it is the nature of vulnerable people to be unable to speak directly and ask for help, to confront us about ignoring the obvious. It may be that vulnerable people grow accustomed to being overlooked. If so, don’t we have a responsibility? Perhaps they and we conspire unknowingly to tolerate the obliviousness.

That’s why June 15th is an important day. World Elder Abuse Day is set aside to raise not only awareness but also consciousness about one of those problems hidden in plain sight here and everywhere. In front of our individual and collective eyes elderly people are abused, exploited, neglected and discounted.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services estimates seven out of every ten elderly persons you meet are victimized in one of many possible ways. Last year 542 cases of elder-abuse were reported in Wyoming alone. Startling? What is startling is that for every case reported, experts believe 23 others go unreported, hidden in plain sight from those who could do something to protect the victims.  

June 15th is set aside to proclaim that the elderly deserve better. The cycle of life is such that humans are most assailable at the front and at the backside of our lives. If the special susceptibility of young children and aging adults attracts those who would abuse, it is likewise a time of life that the community must take responsibility to protect those rendered vulnerable simply by the stage of life in which victims live.

Wyoming has been in the forefront nationally, preparing to deal with this issue. Wyoming has established 25 community-based adult protection teams with a focus on prevention.  Across the state, the senior centers, law enforcement, home health agencies, long term care facilities, district and county attorneys, independent living programs, victim services coordinators, mental health and developmental disabilities service providers, public health nurses, the faith community and others work together as a team.

Over the years, in my work with child and adult protection, suicide prevention, underage drinking, addiction recovery, and similar social issues, I found it difficult if not impossible to prevent or reduce those problems the community tolerates. The programs listed above devote their full measure to preventing elder-abuse and protecting vulnerable people. But if the community turns a blind eye to the suffering, nothing will change. Maybe, that’s why not much has changed despite the yeoman efforts of state and local government and local programs.

That is what awareness is all about. Awareness is compelling. Learn the signs of elder abuse and exploitation just as many have learned to recognize the signs of child abuse and exploitation. Visible, obvious injuries can’t be ignored nor should you always accept the elderly victim’s quick explanation. A blackened eye or broken arm may have been the result of an accident but it should not go unquestioned.

Be aware of signs of neglect such as insufficient food supplies or less than adequate personal care and cleanliness. Is an elderly neighbor’s adult child isolating an aging parent or taking financial-advantage? DFS believes financial exploitation of the elderly is “epidemic.” It costs the taxpayers as those who had the ability to financially care for themselves are left to rely on public assistance.

Once you are aware, then report your suspicions to law enforcement or DFS.

On June 15th, take a moment to contemplate what has been hidden in plain sight from your own view. If we live long enough, each of us will find ourselves there. Let’s create the community we’d like to have when we reach the age of vulnerability.

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