Every June 15 we commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It is important that we speak openly about elder abuse, because it is a hidden crime that most Americans are reluctant to talk about or even acknowledge.
In 2011, a landmark study revealed that only an estimated 1 in 24 instances of elder abuse in New York state are ever referred to social services, law enforcement or other legal authorities. It was an eye-opening moment for everyone who has worked with victims of abuse, and a reminder that we need to do more to protect our senior citizens, the people who protected us when we were younger.
Elder abuse can take many forms, and includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, active or passive neglect and/or financial exploitation. What is most troubling is that the perpetrator is often well known to the victim. To make matters worse, it can be particularly difficult for a person to call for help when the individual exploiting him or her is a loved one.
So who, specifically, is committing elder abuse? The offender is typically an adult child or grandchild who is living with an aging parent or relative. Offenders are often unemployed or underemployed, have untreated mental health or substance abuse issues, and rely on their older parents for financial support and housing. The lives of the abuser and the abused are intertwined, and for that reason, there is a reluctance to report abuse. Victims often do not want their loved ones arrested and prosecuted. They simply want the abuse to stop and to get help for the offender.
In Nassau County, as around the country, we have an aging population. There are roughly 220,000 people older than 65, and that number will likely grow to 277,000 by 2025, according to the New York State Office for the Aging. And as that population grows, we expect an increase in crimes against older people.
There are steps you can take, however, to help reduce elder abuse in your community. Make regular visits to your older friends, neighbors and relatives. Check to make sure there’s good food in the refrigerator and cabinets.
Does the older adult look clean and nourished? Does he or she appear to need help around the house? Are there late notices for bills? Has anyone moved in and taken over his or her life?
Isolated older adults are often targets of abuse. If someone is missing from your house of worship or senior center, find out what’s going on. If you’re a doctor or medical provider and an older patient is missing appointments — or suffering more frequent injuries — make a house call.
On the financial front, it’s also important to talk regularly with your elderly friends and family members about phone scams. Many scammers deliberately target older Americans with too-good-to-be-true solicitations or pretend there’s an emergency that requires the victim to act immediately. They instill a sense of fear and urgency.
One of the most common frauds we see is the “Grandparent Scam.” The caller claims that an elderly person’s grandchild is in trouble, typically in a foreign country, and that money is needed to release the grandchild from custody.
In other common scams, callers impersonate an agent of the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service and claim there are issues with the targeted person’s account. (Our partners at the SSA and the IRS will never contact you by phone.)
These scammers attempt to extract as much information as possible from their intended victims, and often threaten them with arrest if they don’t immediately send a payment.
What is particularly troubling about these cases is that the scammers are sophisticated, and use “spoofed” phone numbers that appear to be actual government agency numbers. If you receive a suspicious call, hang up, immediately contact a family member or friend and tell them what just happened.
We must work together as a community to make sure that older Americans are allowed to age with dignity and respect. We must protect them as they have protected us.
If you see something that concerns you, tell someone in authority. Nassau County Adult Protective Services can be reached at (516) 227-8395. If you believe that an older adult is being financially abused — or that you were the victim of a phone scam — call the Nassau County District Attorney Criminal Complaints Hotline at (516) 571-7755.
And if you see an immediate emergency, call 911. You may save someone’s life.
Madeline Singas is the Nassau County district attorney.