To mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, I would like to feature the words and sentiments of Joy Solomon, Director and Managing Attorney of the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention in her opinion piece below. This is an opportunity for each one of us to check on an older neighbor, family or friend to ensure that they are safe. If you suspect elder abuse in your community, contact law enforcement immediately.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day - JUNE 15, 2015
By Joy Solomon
Director and Managing Attorney
The Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention
The nation's first elder abuse shelter
In 2006, the United Nations designated June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. With that date upon us, it is important to ask what we still need to learn about aging and families in America in order to impact and prevent this rampant problem.
By the year 2050, more than one fifth of all Americans will be over the age of sixty. Within that group, the fastest growing segment is the "old old," individuals over the age of eighty-five. In 1970, this group was only .7% of the US population. By 2050, it will encompass 4.3% of all Americans. A very short time ago, living to the age of eighty-five was an anomaly. Swiftly, it is becoming the norm.
As older adults become a larger segment of the American population, the incidence of elder abuse, already an epidemic problem, is poised to increase as well. Already, the National Center for Elder Abuse reported a 19.7% increase in incidents of elder abuse nationwide between 2000 and 2004. While elder abuse is popularly conceived of as perpetrated by delinquent caregivers or nefarious nursing homes, it is, in fact, primarily a family problem, with 90% of reported abuse inflicted by family members.
When one is asked to conjure an image of the average healthy fifteen or forty year old, a relatively consistent archetype likely comes to most people's minds. Most reasonable people will agree about what such an individual's abilities and limitations will likely be. When asked to imagine the average eighty five year old, however, there is no such easily accessible image. What does a "normal" eighty-five year old look like? What can he or she do? What is his or her cognitive capacity? These questions seem to defy generalizations. The older we get, the more different we become.
Why are there so many vastly different ways to age in America? Why does one person's eighty-five seem decades away from another's? As we age and become increasingly frail, we become correspondingly more vulnerable to the influence of subtle, non-medical factors on our physical health. Medical research has repeatedly shown that a healthy partner, financial stability, regular contact with family, meaningful relationships with friends, involvement in community or faith-based groups, and a comfortable home environment all positively impact physical health in Americans of all ages.
Conversely, the death of a spouse, economic insecurity, and social isolation can all hasten illness, cognitive decline and death. As we become more fragile with age, these effects are exponentially more profound. As physical and cognitive decline sets in, the risk for abuse rises dramatically. As social isolation grows, the opportunities to detect abuse shrink.
These findings are a call to action. Our bodies are telling us what is needed to prevent elder abuse, more literally than we might have guessed. Within our own families and communities, we must strengthen the types of relationships and connections that nurture health, vitality and dignity. We must combat the isolation that is the dark side of progress, and create friendships and families that can serve as a safety net. These actions are powerful enough to change the face of elder abuse, and of aging itself.