MASON, Ohio — She raises her hands to her snow-white hair in a gesture of frustrated bewilderment, then slowly lowers them to cover eyes filling with tears. The woman, in her 70s, is trying to explain how she wound up in a shelter that could well be where she spends the rest of her life.
While the woman was living with a close family member, officials at the Shalom Center say, her money was being drained away by people overcharging for her grocery shopping, while her body and spirit were sapped by physical neglect and emotional torment. She says she was usually ordered to "go to bed," where she lay in a dark room, upset, unable to sleep.
"She just yelled at me all the time. Screamed at me, cussed me out," the woman says of a family member. "I don't know what happened. She just got tired of me, I guess."
The Shalom Center offers shelter, along with medical, psychological and legal help, to elderly abuse victims in this northern Cincinnati suburb. It is among a handful in the country that provide sanctuary from such treatment, a problem experts say is growing along with the age of the nation's population.
The number of Americans 65 and over is projected to nearly double by 2030 because of the 74 million baby boomers born in 1946-64, and the number of people 85 and over is increasing even faster rate. The number of seniors being abused, exploited or neglected every year is often estimated at about 2 million, judging by available statistics and surveys, but experts say the number could be much higher. Some research indicates that 1 in 10 seniors have suffered some form of abuse at least once.
"That's a big number," said Sharon Merriman-Nai, project director of the Clearinghouse on Abuse and Neglect of the Elderly, based at the University of Delaware. "It's a huge issue, and it's just going to get bigger."
Recognition of and mechanisms for dealing with elder abuse are many years behind strides that have been made in child abuse awareness and protection, experts say.
Getting comprehensive numbers of the abused is complicated, experts say, because the vast majority of cases go unreported out of embarrassment, fear of being cut off from family — most abuse is at the hands of relatives — or confusion about what has happened.
Abuse sometimes comes to light only by chance. County-level adult protective services caseworkers can get anonymous tips. In one recent Ohio case, a hair stylist noticed her elderly client was wincing in pain and got her to acknowledge she had been hit in the ribs by a relative. Another Shalom Center patient was referred by sheriff's detectives who said his son beat him.
"Are these older people going to be allowed to live their lives the way they deserve to?" said Carol Silver Elliott, CEO of the Cedar Village retirement community, of which the Shalom Center is a part. "We really are not addressing it as a society the way we should."
The Obama administration has said it has increased its focus on protecting American seniors by establishing a national resource center and a consumer protection office, among other steps. But needs are growing at a time when government spending on social services is being cut on many levels or not keeping up with demand.
In Ohio, slowly recovering from the recession, budgets have been slashed in such areas as staffs that investigate elderly abuse cases.
Staff at the Jobs and Family Services agency in Hamilton County in Cincinnati is about half the size it was in 2009, spokesman Brian Gregg said. Even as national statistics indicate elder abuse is increasing, the number of elder abuse cases the agency can probe is lower, down from 574 cases in 2009 to 477 last year, he said.
There are no longer enough adult protective services investigators to routinely check on older adults unless there is a specific report of abuse or neglect.
"We do the best we can down here," Gregg said, noting that the agency has a hotline to take anonymous reports and that it is seeing more financial scams targeting elderly people.
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