Shining a spotlight on a public-health crisis: elder abuse

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There are more than 2. 1 million reported cases of elder abuse or exploitation in the U.S. each year, and some estimates of the actual number of these cases are 10 times higher.

For LGBT older adults, there are many reasons why this abuse is of great concern. We’ll get to this later, but first, let’s define elder abuse.

Abuse has many labels and comes in many forms: domestic, verbal, emotional, sexual, neglect, exploitation, physical, financial, to name a few. The Administration on Aging, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, defines elder abuse as “intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver or trusted individual that causes harm to a vulnerable elder.”

The United Nations designated June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The aim was to focus global attention on the problem of abuse of elders.

Locally, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has formed an Elder Abuse Task Force. Deborah Cooper Nixon, director of the Elder Justice Program and chair of the Task Force, calls elder abuse “a public-health crisis.” Diane Menio, executive director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, agrees.

“We have been addressing this crisis for over 30 years,” Menio said. “It is encouraging that international organizations like the U.N., and locally, the District Attorney’s office, are shining a spotlight on this epidemic.”

Because most LGBT seniors do not have children or traditional family structures that provide watchful eyes and protection against possible abuse, many live in varying degrees of isolation. That isolation can make them easy targets for abusers.

Some elders are at risk because they choose to remain in the closet and fear being outed. As a result, they are more susceptible to blackmail, manipulation, fraud and abuse.

Same-sex couples do not have the same legal rights that protect opposite-sex married couples. Same-sex couples are denied Social Security spousal and survivor benefits. In many states, including Pennsylvania, a surviving “partner” is forced to pay inheritance taxes while their “married” counterparts pay nothing. The result is financial insecurity that puts LGBT seniors at greater risk of manipulation than those with more secure financial rights.

In addition to these risk factors, there are some types of abuse that are unique to the treatment of LGBT elders. Refusal to allow same-sex partners to visit each other in a nursing, long-term care or other similar facility is elder abuse. Refusal to let same-sex partners live together in a continuing-care community or similar setting is elder abuse. Forcing a transgender person to dress in a fashion that represents the gender he or she was assigned at birth is elder abuse. Not treating an LGBT elder with dignity and respect because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity is elder abuse. These acts, and others like them, can no longer be considered just discrimination or homo- or transphobia: They are all acts of abuse and should be prosecuted.

According to the Task Force’s Nixon, “We want to make sure that these cases [of elder abuse] are identified and treated with sensitivity within the criminal-justice system. We want to make sure that older adults know that there is a place to go. We need to give older adults a voice and a place where they feel safe to discuss these issues.”

As with so many other issues, it is our entire community’s responsibility to take care of its own. Elder abuse is no exception. Philadelphia Corporation for Aging has a comprehensive list of the warning signs of elder abuse on its website, www.pcacares.org.

Some of those signs in older adults are: • Bruises, broken bones, burns, abrasions or other unexplained injuries • Poor hygiene, unusual weight loss or dehydration • Lack of needed glasses, hearing aids or other assistive devices • Over- or under-use of medication • Emotional state: anxious, timid, fearful or depressed.

If you suspect elder abuse, report it to your local adult-protective-services agency. For individual state reporting numbers, call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116. In Philadelphia, call PCA Protective Services at 215-765-9040. The CARIE LINE helps victims and can be reached at 215-545-5728 or 800-356-3606. The SeniorLAW Center provides legal help through its Protection from Abuse and other measures, and can be reached at 215-988-1242 or 877–PA SR LAW. Other important resources and help lines are The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) and The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

Ed Bomba is communications chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative. The LGBTEI, headquartered in Philadelphia, fosters and advocates for services, resources and institutions that are competent, culturally sensitive, inclusive and responsive to the needs of LGBT elders in the Delaware Valley and beyond. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, visit www.lgbtei.org or call the LGBTEI at 267-546-3448. Watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.