Samara Navarro

(WOMENSENEWS)–Dorothy Gaskin of Hammond, Ind., lived in an apartment adjoining her son and his wife’s unit. The two had promised to care for the 87-year-old woman, who suffered from a number of ailments and needed about six hours of care every day.

Gaskin was found dead, her body decomposing amid months of filth, flies and feces. The police estimated that daughter-in-law Carolyn had provided about 15 minutes of care a day,while Dorothy’s son had provided none.

A recently published report by the National Center for Elder Abuse indicates that cases like Gaskin’s are on the rise. The November report is a preliminary look at a nationwide study, conducted in 2000, that found 472,813 reports of abuse, neglect, exploitation and other forms of mistreatment among vulnerable adults. That’s an increase of 180,000 cases since 1996, the last year a study was conducted, though researchers point out that the 1996 study looked solely at elderly persons while the new data includes adults with mental and physical handicaps.

"We are just crying for more research," says Sara Aravanis, director of the National Center on Elder Abuse. "There is no handle on the problem as a national picture."

Developing clear information about the issue is one of the goals of the Elder Justice Act of 2002, introduced last year in the U.S. Senate by Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. The bill failed to reach the floor for a vote, but Breaux hasn’t given up. He and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, reintroduced the bill Feb. 10.

He says experts estimate only 16 percent of elder abuse is reported.

Women More Likely To Be Abused, In and Out of Nursing Homes

What the study does show is a pattern: Women, especially those over 80, are most likely to be abused. The alleged abuser is often a family member and the most common type of abuse is neglect.

The study also dispels the traditional assumption that most abuse takes place in nursing homes. In fact, most elder abuse happens at home and many victims are unable or unwilling to report it because the abuser is often a relative or someone they’ve trusted, says Aravanis.

Women are more likely to be victims because they live longer and are more likely to be living alone, says Samara Navarro, director of adult services for the Florida Department of Children and Families, the state agency responsible for investigating abuse complaints. Women also are more likely to be victims of continuing domestic violence.

In addition, elderly women remain vulnerable to sexual abuse.

"We had an elderly woman raped in a nursing home here. The perpetrator was prosecuted successfully and is in jail," says Bonnie Dewar, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Myers, Fla. "But frequently, the victims are not coherent enough to report it or they are ashamed about reporting it. They feel they must have done something wrong. Of course, the victim is never to blame."

Increasing the Number of Cases Reported

Jackie visits her 91-year-old mother at the Cape Coral, Fla., nursing home where she spends the day at least four times a week.

Like many patients in nursing homes, Jackie’s mother needs help with simple things, such as getting up and going to the bathroom. Some of the caregivers respond quickly, while others might leave her screaming for help as long as 25 minutes, says Jackie, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear that complaining would worsen the situation.

"I can’t wait 25 minutes," she says. "I don’t think they should be taking care of dogs, let alone human beings."

Jackie’s reluctance to alert authorities about her mother’s care is typical. In Iowa, for example, state officials are currently trying to recruit a spokesperson–a former victim who is now in a safe situation–who is willing to assist authorities raise public awareness through a public service campaign to encourage more to come forward.

With the second-largest population of older citizens among the 50 states, Iowa logged 888 complaints of abuse involving victims over age 61 during fiscal year 2001, about 1.5 complaints per thousand older residents.

In contrast, Florida, which has the largest population of seniors, logged 41,542 complaints last year, a rate of 11.72 reports per thousand residents.

Eileyn Sobeck-Bador, community outreach manager for Senior Solutions of Southwest Florida, an area agency responsible for planning, promoting and implementing programs and services that help keep elders independent at home, says there has been an increase in reports.

"We’re not sure if more people are being victimized or if more are aware they can report it," she says. Every person in the state of Florida is a "mandatory reporter," she adds, which means they are criminally liable for not reporting abuse that they know is going on.

"Getting abuse reported can be a problem because people are often afraid of strangers and what is going to happen," Samara Navarro says. "And we are dealing with adult victims who have rights. They have the right to refuse services as long as they have the capacity to consent. They can, and often do, tell us to go away."

The question of what defines abuse or neglect can also be unclear.

"It’s very different than what we find with children," says Navarro. "With elders, the lines get very gray. In some parts of the state, a lot of people are living with rats. When we tell them that we view that as a problem, they think we’re nuts."

"We found that most do not want to talk about it because of embarrassment and shame," says Linda Hildreth, Iowa’s state elder abuse policy coordinator. "Some do not want to talk about their abusers or relive the experience."

Kate Thompson is a freelance writer based in Cape Coral, Florida.



For more information:

National Center on Elder Abuse–
"A Response to the Abuse ofVulnerable Adults:
The 2000 Survey of State Adult Protective Services":

Senate Special Committee on Aging: