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Elderly and frail deserve better care

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Many neighborhoods are aging. A friend and I were discussing the lack of young families where she lives. We talked about it in the context of helping with things like shoveling snow and mowing lawns, but it also means more isolated elderly people.

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The last day that my mom lived in her home alone, my sister found her in the bathtub, where she’d been since the night before. The water was icy cold, Mom was confused and had apparently fallen repeatedly trying to get out.

That fact was written in the mass of bruises beginning to form across her back.

Until that day, she’d never had trouble bathing herself, although she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We had cobbled together a plan so she was as independent as she could be as long as possible. My sister, Kathy, took on much of the task of checking on her in person because she lived not far away. I kept in touch by phone and spent weekends with her.

Like most in our situation, we were doing the best we could.

The night before, Kathy got her dinner. As she prepared to leave, Mom said she was going to take a bath. Kathy drew the water and laid out her pajamas and kissed her goodbye. When she couldn’t reach her the next day, my sister rushed to the house and found her freezing and mumbling in the tub.

She was taken by ambulance to the hospital and I rushed to cover the 30 miles separating our towns. When I got there, she was still confused and cold and the hospital staff seemed inexplicably hostile toward us.

It soon became apparent that the issue was the mass of bruises forming on her back where she’d slammed into the tub as she rose and fell. They asked us individually to tell them what happened. They sent us away so they could ask her if we ever hurt her. Thankfully, even in her somewhat-confused state, she thought that was humorous.

“Never,” she said emphatically.

I was stunned that someone would question our care of Mom, because we were tight-knit and had gone to great lengths to meet her needs, in consultation with our brothers, who lived farther away.

It annoyed me no end that we could not get any answers about what was really happening to her while they “investigated” what they thought might be happening.

Mom died a few years later, nearly a decade ago. I have since learned that she was lucky someone was asking questions. It’s estimated as many a 1 in 10 senior citizens have been abused or exploited in some way at least once and, for some, it’s an ongoing ordeal. It happens to up to 2 million senior citizens a year.

The New York City mayor’s office on domestic violence told the Associated Press abuse can be physical or it can include physical or chemical restraint, failure to shelter and feed someone adequately, social isolation, desertion or misuse of an elderly person’s resources.

Numbers are squishy because abuse is often discovered accidently or not at all. Some seniors are embarrassed or afraid. Some, despite abuse by relatives, don’t want to lose contact with them. Even more problematic is abuse of those who can’t report it — folks with dementia or confusion or other medical conditions that keep them silent.

As a country, we do a very poor job of meeting the needs of a frail and endangered population. And most communities don’t have shelters to take care of the elderly when they’re victimized, or even enough staff to keep up with investigations.

Many neighborhoods are aging. A friend and I were discussing the lack of young families where she lives. We talked about it in the context of helping with things like shoveling snow and mowing lawns, but it also means more isolated elderly people.

If someone can’t get out, we should try to reach in. At the very least, you can be a bright spot in someone’s day. Occasionally, you could even save a life.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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