The percentage of our population that is elderly — and often infirm as well — is growing. As that percentage of the population grows, the number of elderly who are hoodwinked out of their retirement nest egg, neglected, or emotionally or physically abused, is growing steadily as well.
Senior abuse is a tough problem to quantify. Statistics, surveys, and expert opinions vary, with estimates of victims numbering in the millions, but the reality is hard to grasp because the problem is largely a hidden one. Many seniors spend their time indoors — due to health or choice — and aren’t seen in public often. How are neighbors to know if the apparently devoted son who stops by every second day isn’t abusing his confused mother and looting her bank account? How many seniors are too embarrassed and ashamed by their treatment to confess that their niece or grandson is threatening and assaulting them? And there is a definitional problem, too. How do you treat the fiercely independent older couple where the husband insists he can care for his ailing wife, but family friends notice their hygiene and general health noticeably slipping? Are they being neglected, or is their fervent wish for independence simply being honored? How are we to know, too, if the money that is vanishing from the aging parent’s bank account is disappearing due to fraud, or to a legitimate wish to help relatives who are down on their luck, or to pay for an expensive form of treatment or drug therapy?
The elderly are a ripe target for crime and abuse. They often have life savings to plunder, and they receive a monthly Social Security check. They may be weak, wheelchair-bound, or suffering through the early stages of debilitating mental or physical illness. Their social support network of friends, family, and co-workers may have fallen away as a result of retirements, departures to warmer climates, and deaths. If a relative moves in to help Great Aunt Alice, is it a wonderful act of human kindness or a precursor to abuse and financial exploitation?
There’s always pressure for a federal solution, but it’s hard to see how a national bureaucracy could effectively address this problem. The best answer seems to be vigilant neighbors, friends, and family members who are alert to signs of abuse and willing to report their suspicions to local authorities. Financial fraud is a crime, as is physical assault, and they should be treated and prosecuted as such. We should all be observant and sensitive to seniors who may desperately need our help and who deserve not to be terrorized or defrauded in their twilight years.