Debbie H. Bell of the Virginia Attorney General’s office gives a presentation on recognizing abuse of older or disabled adults in a seminar at King’s Grant.

By Kim Barto Meeks

Abuse of older adults is on the rise as the population ages, a speaker from the Virginia Attorney General’s office said during a talk last week.

However, the statistics do not tell the full story, because elder abuse often goes unreported to authorities.

Martinsville Police Officer Coretha Gravely introduces a seminar on elder abuse held recently at King’s Grant by the MHC TRIAD S.A.L.T. Council. S.A.L.T. stands for “Seniors and Law Enforcement Together.”

Debbie H. Bell, outreach coordinator for the state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the Virginia Attorney General’s office, shared information about different types of abuse and how victims can get help in a presentation on Sept. 18 to an audience of about 50 senior citizens and those who work with seniors. The MHC TRIAD S.A.L.T. Council sponsored the talk, called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Shining a Light on Elder Abuse,” held at King’s Grant.

“Elder abuse often goes undetected, untreated, and unreported,” Bell said. “With a growing population of older adults in the United States, it’s no surprise that abuse is on the increase. A lot of people are trying to take advantage of seniors.”

Elderly or disabled adults are vulnerable to abuse because they depend on caretakers for various needs. “There’s more opportunity for other people to have more control over us as we age,” she said.

Abuse may go unreported for many reasons, such as fear of retaliation, or because the adult has no one else to take care of them. Older adults may be afraid people won’t listen or won’t believe them, especially if they suffer from dementia or other impairments. Victims may also blame themselves for the abuse. The situation becomes more complicated when the abuser is a relative.

Stephanie LaPrade of the Southern Area Agency on Aging, who is president of the MHC TRIAD S.A.L.T. Council, introduces a speaker on elder abuse at a seminar

“When abuse occurs in families, there is great hesitancy to report it,” Bell said. For example, victims may not want to get a loved one in trouble or embarrass the family.

Warning the audience that “elder abuse is ugly,” she played some news videos and a 911 call from real incidents. One victim called 911 and kept repeating that “a maniac” in her house had attacked her. It turned out to be her grandson, who raped and beat her. However, the woman did not want to identify him to the dispatcher.

Statistics from the Adult Protective Services Division at the state Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, which investigates elder abuse reports, show the numbers are on the rise. Total APS reports across Virginia increased 15.9 percent from 2017 to 2018, or 27,105 to  31,436 reports. This mirrors the previous year’s 15.6-percent growth from 2016 to 2017. In 2018, APS received 577 reports in Henry County and Martinsville alone.

Statewide, about 55 percent of cases are substantiated by APS, meaning they find evidence to confirm the abuse.

The adult’s own home or apartment was by far the most common location of abuse, neglect or exploitation in substantiated APS reports, with 8,435 cases in 2018. The next most common place was another person’s home, with 1,058 cases. Nursing and assisted living facilities were the sites of 688 and 342 cases, respectively.

Of particular concern for seniors, substantiated cases of financial abuse in Virginia rose 30 percent from 2017 to 2018. Financial abuse may take the form of scams, investment schemes, forgeries, or other means of stealing money. Elderly adults can be coerced into signing documents or giving out personal information that is then used to steal their identity. Caregivers may misuse power of attorney, or new lodgers and roommates may take advantage of them.

Bell described one incident she witnessed just the other day where she passed an elderly woman in the gift card section of a drugstore. The woman seemed very confused, and a man with a foreign accent on speaker phone was trying to get her to take some kind of action involving the gift cards. With the woman’s permission, Bell borrowed the phone and asked the caller what was going on. She believes the caller was trying to scam the woman, and when he was prevented from doing so, he “used a lot of colorful adjectives to describe me,” Bell said.

Martinsville Police Officer Coretha Gravely urged the audience to be wary of strange calls and to not give out any financial information over the phone.

Signs of financial abuse can include unexplained purchases or withdrawals and other names appearing on the person’s bank card. Or, the person may be receiving “substandard care despite having financial resources,” Bell said.

Other types of abuse include physical, emotional, sexual, neglect, abandonment, and health care fraud.

Physical abuse of seniors does not always involve hitting; it can mean improper drug use, such as overmedicating an adult so that they are sedated and easy to control. Or, an abuser may deny medication or a medical device the adult needs and wants to use. Bell emphasized that the exception is when “a competent adult has expressed the desire to go without such care.”

Some signs of physical or sexual abuse include bruises, welts, unexplained bleeding or diseases. The person’s eyeglasses may be broken. Friends and family should also watch for changes in behavior.

Bell described emotional abuse as “bullying.” It can include name-calling, intimidation, and threats — not only to the person, but to people they love and/or pets. Signs include avoiding eye contact, acting more shy than usual, having mood swings, or acting depressed or hopeless. The person may start harming themselves or others.

Neglect refers to a lack of safety, comfort, or hygiene. The person may be kept in unsanitary conditions, or deprived of food, water, and medication.

Confinement or isolation is when the abuser keeps the victim away from friends, family, and social interactions. “This is a big one,” Bell said.

In order to prevent abuse, Bell encouraged friends and family of older and disabled adults to “call and visit often.” This enables others to watch for changes in behavior and other signs of abuse. She also suggested monitoring the person’s medications, if possible; providing respite care for the primary caregiver; and making sure the adult gets plenty of social activity.

Caregiving is stressful, and “stress is a major factor in elder abuse,” while this does not excuse it, Bell said. “Rest and respite care are absolutely necessary for the caregiver.”

Caregivers should seek help for depression or substance abuse, which can be coping mechanisms, she said.

Bell listed several ways to report suspected cases of elder abuse. First, if you think someone is in urgent danger, call 911 or the local police to get help right away. Adult Protective Services can be reached at 800-83-ADULT. The National Center on Elder Abuse has a toll-free hotline at 855-500-3537 and information online at https://ncea.acl.gov.

The Southern Area Agency on Aging is a local nonprofit with resources and services for older adults and caregivers. More information is available at 276-632-6442 or www.southernaaa.org.

The next MHC TRIAD S.A.L.T. seminar will be held from 2-3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Henry County Administration Building. The topic will be “Social Isolation.”