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Seniors Series: Spotting elder abuse, and how to better protect seniors

County, nonprofit officials highlight strategies to address growing area of concern
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In California, the elderly population is expected to grow more than three times as fast as the total population, according to the state's Department of Aging. Alameda County is projected to see an almost 200% population increase of people over the age of 60 by 2060.

The U.S. Administration on Aging also expects that by 2034, older Americans will outnumber children.

But as we see more and more seniors in our communities, one thing that seems to remain unchanged is older residents being targeted by elder abuse.

"In the last decade or so, elder abuse reports investigated by the adult protective services have increased by more than 150%," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said in a Justice for All video.

The video came out in June during Elder Abuse Awareness Month, which was recognized by the Pleasanton City Council in light of the continued stress of the pandemic and higher cases of elder abuse.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines elder abuse as "an intentional act or failure to act by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult." According to figures by the U.S. Department of Justice, at least 10% of adults age 65 and older will be a victim of elder abuse in a given year.

In the video, O'Malley spoke with Briggitte Lowe, head of the DA's Elder Adult Protection Unit, about what elder abuse is, ways to spot different forms of abuse and what families can do to protect their older relatives.

"There's a misconception that a lot of this type of abuse occurs in facilities like retirement homes and while it is true, 95% of abuse occurs in victims' homes by people who develop trusting relationships," Lowe said in the video. She said abusers can be anyone from the elder person's family, caregivers or scammers on the internet.

According to a monthly report from the Alameda County Social Services Agency, 1,446 individual cases were filed by the Adult Protective Services Agency in June. Pleasanton had the most cases with 59 followed by Livermore with 50 and Dublin with 29.

As of June 22, there are 80 pending felony and misdemeanor elder abuse cases with a future court date, according to the Alameda County DA's Office.

The office told Livermore Vine that reporting generally has gone down because of the pandemic because people have been stuck at home. But unlike domestic violence victims, elders typically don't leave the house, which means they're likely with their abusers at home and are less likely to report it.

"A lot of times it has a lot to do with the familiarity that the elder has with the person ... that's why isolation is such an important part of abuse," Lowe said. "The more an elder either feels isolated already or the more a perpetrator can isolate an elder, the more vulnerable they become to being the victim of abuse."

She said that abuse isn't usually obvious to spot and can start with subtle things like a caregiver offering to take care of minute things such as going to the bank.
"I've had cases where the caregiver says to the family member, 'I will handle that, I will take them to the bank' and then they start becoming that person that the banking institution is used to seeing at the bank so they at some point no longer question that person," Lowe said.

So what can older residents and their families in Alameda County do to protect themselves?

Jennifer Pardini, a community education advocate at Legal Assistance for Seniors, told the Weekly that her organization is one of many in the county that provides support for these types of victims. The Oakland-based organization provides community education programs, legal support and representation to seniors and dependent adults across the county.

She said that the key is educating the older communities about the resources available.

"I wish we could come up at work one day and be, like, 'Great, we solved elder abuse.' It's just not how it is and I don't see it stopping," Pardini said. "So we want to be here and let people know and be available to anyone that wants to ask those questions or get referrals or use our services."

But she also said that seeking help can sometimes be hard because of many reasons like feeling embarrassed that they fell for a scam, living with their abuser, or because their abuser is a family member that the elder doesn't want to be seen locked up in jail.

"Sadly, whether it's due to fear of retaliation, or worse, many of our elders don't talk about the abuse they've endured," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a June 15 news release addressing Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

"Elder abuse can take many insidious forms, including the neglect of a caregiver, financial exploitation and sexual, physical and mental abuse," Bonta added. "Too often, the perpetrators of these egregious actions are those we trust the most to take care of our loved ones. Our elders should never suffer, especially in silence."

Pardini said that while she understands why some elderly people wouldn't want to incarcerate their family members who might be abusing them, Legal Assistance for Seniors attorneys can still help with restraining orders and finding the best way to deal with their abuser, without getting the police immediately involved.

It is important to note that the nonprofit only deals with civil cases, not criminal cases, and they can only help elders who call in, not their family members.

One example of a civil case that isn't at the forefront of elder abuse discussions is financial abuse.

According to the California Association of Area Agencies on Aging, an organization representing California's 33 area agencies on aging, elder abuse is already significantly underreported.

For every case known to programs and agencies, 24 are unknown -- for financial abuse, only one in 44 cases is known. Financial elder abuse typically refers to instances like online and phone scams where people trick older people who might not be as privy with technology, to give personal information like bank account numbers and their social security.

"When they get on the phone with someone ... those are really difficult situations for the elders to recognize that it is a scam," O'Malley said.

The county, along with other organizations that aid seniors, recognize that technology is in some way, the achilles heel for older communities, which is why being there for your elderly relatives is important.

"These scams against elders are going to continue to become prevalent as more and more things become computerized," the DA's office said.

"These older generations may have some proficiency in computers, but may not be experts ... This opens elders up to phishing scams and makes them more vulnerable," officials added. "We need to take care of our elders. Isolation contributes to elders getting scammed, so please remember to check in on the elders in your life often."

Checking in is something that O'Malley and Lowe stressed in their video, saying that it really comes down to family members communicating and educating their older relatives. Lowe said that it should be treated like checks and balances where the family checks in with the banks and makes sure that nothing is out of the ordinary.

She also said that for seniors, it's important to not only use the resources in the county but to also double check any website they visit and not fall for phone calls that aren't government bodies that never actually call you if they need something.

"When there is an elder in your life, please don't allow them to be isolated, please visit them, call them on a regular basis," Lowe said.

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