A growing number of seniors must face risks of abuse, sometimes coming from the hands of their own family members, or from those whom they commission to care for them.
Gracie Stillwell was an elderly woman living alone at Switchback, a former coal camp, near Welch in McDowell County.
At 87, she was nearly deaf, partially blind and confined to a wheelchair. A few years ago, she hired a full-time caregiver, who bilked her for some $36,000, draining her bank accounts completely and leaving her broke.
Sadly, Gracie’s family and officials only became aware of the criminal activity after the swindler fled McDowell County with the woman’s savings and several of her belongings in tow, including kitchen and cooking items, some of her clothes, and a crucifix fashioned out of wormy-chestnut that her son had crafted for her before he died in nearby Maitland-Superior, also a former mining community.
Emergency workers discovered Gracie, a native of Roderfield and former housewife, living alone at her two-story frame residence in Switchback. At 81 pounds, she was too weak to stand up. Her other son, Matthew, locked her in her room, refused to give her food to eat, and stole her social security checks.
Instead of providing loving care for his aging mother, her son threatened to kill her and bury her in the woods if she complained of the abuse.
Unfortunately, cases like this one represent a growing crisis in the United States. For most seniors, the “golden years” are an opportunity to relax, travel and enjoy time with family and friends.
For too many Americans, however, these years turn into a nightmare of abuse, neglect, and exploitation—often at the hands of people they know and trust.
According to Carrie Abner, a public safety and justice policy analyst, as many as 5 million American seniors are victims of elder abuse each year.
The National Center on Elder Abuse describes elder mistreatment as “any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult.”
While official definitions vary significantly from state to state, most experts agree that elder abuse can be broken down into categories of physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect or abandonment.
Statistics, meanwhile, fail to show the immensity of the crisis. A national study conducted five years ago found cases of elder abuse were grossly underreported.
Another recent study estimated that approximately half a million seniors were victims of abuse or neglect in domestic settings in 2020, yet only 16 percent of these were reported to state authorities.
In the case of Gracie Stillwell in McDowell County, nothing was ever done to recover her cash and property, but she was being cared for by the Department of Human Services and was on her way to recovery following the maltreatment she suffered at the hands of her son a few years ago.
Health officials maintain a close watch on Gracie’s health, diet, and medication. The elderly woman soon began walking under her own power soon, and hopes were high for her total recovery. “We’re doing the best we can,” a state social worker explained recently. “Gracie is making progress every single day. We’re so proud of her.”
Meantime, for every case such as Gracie’s that is reported to officials, another five cases go unreported. In other words, experts know only the “tip of the iceberg” regarding the scope of domestic elder abuse.
Other studies even point to concerns in institutional settings, such as nursing homes, foster homes, and other residential facilities.
A report issued by the Special Investigations Division of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform noted that approximately 30 percent of nursing homes nationwide were cited for abuse violations. Moreover, statistics show that the number of nursing homes cited for these violations is rising.
Sadly, as the U.S. population ages, the incidence of elder abuse is expected to rise. In the past decade, there were an estimated 35 million individuals aged 65 or older in the United States, comprising nearly 13 percent of the total population.
Federal reports show that by 2030, the size of the older population is expected to double, growing to some 70 million, and leaving millions more seniors at risk.
“The occurrence and severity of elder mistreatment are likely to increase markedly over the coming decades, as the population ages, caregiving responsibilities and relationships change, and increasing numbers of older persons require long-term care,” according to a representative from the National Research Council’s Panel to Review Risk and Prevalence of Elder Abuse and Neglect.
Yet, awareness of elder abuse remains relatively low. According to a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Human Services (DHS), “Elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation have not received the attention they deserve. We are only slowly defining the scope of the crisis and unraveling the complexity of this massive social problem.”
Cases like those of Gracie Kidwell and other elders demonstrate the serious threats seniors face. Their stories also serve as powerful reminders of the need to continue efforts to combat elder abuse in our nation.
Given the complexity of the problem, officials must continue to enlist the help of a variety of state agencies, private sector partners, community members and seniors themselves, the DHS spokesperson said.
As the U.S. population ages, states will continue to face the challenges of elder abuse, neglect, and victimization. While several states have already taken important steps to address the growing problem, much more remains to be done, authorities said.
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