Commentary: We must work together to combat growing cases of elder abuse

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Kim Helper

Kim Helper

Tennessee’s district attorney generals are on a mission to protect seniors from elder abuse. 

We are improving laws, increasing public awareness and, with the help of other partners, using criminal investigations and courtroom prosecutions to prevent elder abuse. But we need the help of informed citizens to win this battle.

Elder abuse can take a wide variety of forms, including financial exploitation.  Those taking an elder’s money could be telephone scammers. They also may include neighbors, family members, service providers or serial criminals looking for easy targets. But elder abuse isn’t just a form of theft, it also may include the neglect of the elderly or vulnerable, physical or even sexual abuse.

One Tennessee victim, elderly and disabled, was left to live alone and without the ability to care for herself. She was occasionally fed by a family member who would pass food through a window. Her frail body was found on a heap of debris beneath the window, the site of her only human interaction or support. 

And last year, a longtime caregiver for an elderly neighbor admitted beating, kicking and even using a bullwhip on a 71-year-old man. The victim’s home was in deplorable condition and the victim, who suffered numerous broken bones and bruises, died shortly after being hospitalized. The caregiver pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and vulnerable-adult neglect, abuse and exploitation.

Earlier this year, a caregiver for an 87-year-old woman with dementia pled guilty to stealing $12,600 from her and forging papers to change the title on her car.

These are just a few of the criminal cases we see far too often in our courts. Perhaps even more alarming is the reality that the cases we see in Tennessee’s criminal justice system are only a fraction of the abuse that is actually occurring. 

Statistics on elder abuse suggest that only one in 14 cases is ever reported. The under-reporting problem is growing here and across the country as our aging population climbs. As many as one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 has experienced some form of elder abuse. Victims often are afraid — or unable — to report the abuse, or may refuse to assist in prosecutions because of their dependence or trust in the abuser in the absence of support from others. 

Tennessee district attorneys general have worked diligently over the past four years to strengthen, revise and update criminal statutes pertaining to elder abuse. This has resulted in greater protections for the elderly and vulnerable, and better tools for police and prosecutors to hold offenders responsible. We believed then, and are seeing now, that we can do more to help and that recent efforts are helping.

Since 2015, local government and nonprofit agencies have been collaborating to combat elder abuse and to improve protection of these older adults. Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams were created. They include representatives — from the district attorney’s office, CREA (an organization dedicated to stopping elder abuse), local law enforcement and Tennessee’s Adult Protective Services — who meet regularly to discuss referrals of abuse, neglect and exploitation. These teams provide a united effort to protect older adults through improved communication to make sure reported abuse is properly investigated, victims are protected and abusers are brought to justice.

Our elderly population is growing as baby boomers become seniors, meaning the need for support services is increasing as is the opportunity to commit elder abuse. Our ability to respond to reports of elder abuse has improved, but the missing link in our response to the crisis is under-reporting. Simply put, law enforcement is ready to respond with help but is powerless to intervene if the abuse is not reported.

Tennessee’s older adults deserve fundamental freedoms and dignity. Our current elderly are part of what some have called the greatest generation. They have a wealth of skills and knowledge that they have developed over a lifetime of experiences. They add strength and wisdom to our community. Let’s all work together in any way we can to prevent elder abuse.

Tennessee state law requires reporting of suspected abuse of a vulnerable or elderly adult. Call 1-888-APS-TENN (277-8366) or visit   https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov. For more information, visit www.tndagc.org/elderabuse.

Helper is district attorney general for the 21st Judicial District (Hickman, Lewis, Perry and Williamson counties).

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