The price for not getting ahead of the problem and preventing abuse of people who would otherwise be healthy and financially stable will be high, warned Joy Solomon, a former Manhattan assistant prosecutor who helped pioneer elder abuse shelters with the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention, which opened in 2005 at the Hebrew Home community in New York City.
"My argument always is, if all you do is come in when the crisis has occurred, it is much more costly than preventative care," said Solomon, director of the shelter, which takes in about 15 people a year. "We're going to have to pay for it anyway."
She and others in the field say the first steps are to raise public awareness and train police, lawyers, criminal justice officials and others to recognize and respond to signs of abuse.
Prosecutors often have been reluctant to purse elder abuse cases, which can be complex because of medical and financial complications, the witness' ability to testify or reluctance to testify against relatives, according to research for the National Institute of Justice.
In suburban Los Angeles, Orange County started an Elder Abuse Forensic Center nearly 10 years ago; it helps police, geriatrics specialists, lawyers and social services workers coordinate efforts to identify, investigate and prosecute abuse cases.
New York City started its Elder Abuse Center to 2009 to bring a multi-organization approach to the problem, saying nearly 100,000 older people are abused in their homes in the city alone. While he was Ohio's attorney general, Richard Cordray, now director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, initiated in 2009 the state Elder Abuse Commission, something current Attorney General Mike DeWine has continued.
The commission has focused on training and education and hopes to launch a public awareness campaign this year, said Ursel McElroy, the longtime adult protection services investigator who leads it. The commission also has been pushing for legislation to improve legal protection and abuse prevention, expand training, and improve statistical data.
In New York, part of the Weinberg Center's mission is to help other communities replicate it. It has assisted shelter startups in upstate New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Minnesota along with the Shalom Center in Ohio.
The center marked its anniversary in January. While more than 40 people have been referred to the nonprofit, faith-based center, only three have gone through with admittance, signs of the reluctance of people who fear losing family relationships — even if they are bad — or the feeling of being at home.
Set up as a "virtual shelter" because victims are integrated into the full Cedar Village retirement community, it is meant to provide 60- to 90-day emergency stays while caseworkers provide help and seek out the best alternative, such as with a different caregiver or relative.
In the case of the woman who complained of abuse in a relative's home, a call to adult protective services by someone familiar with her led to an investigation and her referral to the shelter.
She has little money, health problems and few alternatives, and after a while, she asked if she could stay at Cedar Village permanently. Caseworkers and officials at the nonprofit, faith-based home agreed that was the best place for her.
The center asked that her identity be protected for this story because the close relatives who allegedly abused her don't know where she is.
She paints, plays in a residents' bell choir, plays bingo with others regularly, and has her own room and TV to watch favorites such as "Ellen" and reruns of "I Love Lucy."
The healthy diet the center keeps her on means she misses some of her favorite foods — beans and corn bread, fried pork chops. But she loves the tuna salad, the group activities and having a life with people who care about her.
"I've got quite a few friends," she says. "They're just nice people here. I have somebody to talk to, and I appreciate it."
As many as 2 million older Americans are abused in various ways each year, experts estimate. The majority of cases are at the hands of relatives or other caregivers. Some of the forms, besides physical assault, that elder abuse can take:
Inappropriate use of drugs and physical restraints.
Treating the elderly person like a small child.
Failure to provide sufficient food, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medication, comfort or safety.
Isolating the person from friends, family, other social activities.
Deserting the person.
Misusing the person's funds, property and assets.
— Source: New York City mayor's office on domestic violence
National Center on Elder Abuse: http://ncea.aoa.gov
The Weinberg Center: http://m.hebrewhome.org/weinberg-center.asp
National Institute of Justice: http://tinyurl.com/a9v48yc
Contact the reporter at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell.
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