PARAMUS, N.J. — It’s a form of abuse often overlooked. An elderly widow is living alone comfortably until her son, an alcoholic who has lost his job, comes to live with her.
At his insistence, she gives him her bed and she moves to the couch. After three days, she notices money missing, but says nothing. After a week, she no longer goes to the senior center because her son insists she stay home and cook for him.
Soon, he begins withdrawing money from her bank account, and she stops taking her medication because funds are low. She falls down and is injured, but never reports her son.
That scenario is among the ways many people over 65 are experiencing financial, physical, emotional, sexual or other forms of elder abuse — often at the hands of relatives, experts said last week during Bergen County, N.J.’s first Elder Abuse Awareness and Prevention Conference held at Bergen Community College.
The 3-year-old group, Save Abused and Frail Elderly, organized the conference to raise awareness about elder abuse, and help people in the community — from social workers to neighbors and bank tellers — identify when an elderly person is being victimized. The conference drew about 175 people from various groups, including clergy, emergency workers and social services employees.
Joy Solomon, director of the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention in Riverdale, N.Y., said abusers often isolate their victims. “It is the engine the abuser uses to continue the abuse,” she said.
In the case of the son who isolates his mother, often her friends won’t come over and tell her to get rid of him, and the bank teller keeps her mouth closed even though she recognizes the elderly woman is withdrawing abnormally large sums of money, said Solomon.
In some cases, emergency workers will question the victim in the presence of the abuser, which prevents the victim from reporting the incidents.
Peter Hodge, president of the Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association, said firefighters get basic life-saving training, but “little teaching about abuse” of the elderly.
He recalled responding to an apartment fire and discovering a family that kept a grandmother sleeping on a cot in a closet. “We left because we did not know what to do,” he said.
Hodge said he suggested that firefighter training now include a module for identifying signs of elder abuse. He also wants emergency personnel to develop relationships with community members that work with the elderly.
Patrick O’Dea, president of the Police Chiefs Association of Bergen County, said police can use domestic violence laws to go after household members who are committing abuse, even if they are not a spouse. But he said someone has to report the abuse in order for police to have access to the home.
He said the county’s police chiefs are going to begin reaching out to people who are in constant contact with the elderly, such as the borough clerk who sees senior citizens coming to pay their quarterly tax bill, or the mail carrier who notices that the house is suddenly in disarray.
If someone different is coming to pay an elderly person’s tax bill for him, it could be that the elderly person is sick, said O’Dea. “Or, maybe that person is controlling the finances of the elderly,” he said.
Bank tellers, he added, “are good sources of information.” If an elderly person who never withdraws more than $100 at a time is suddenly withdrawing thousands, that’s an indication something is wrong and they can report that to police.
Attorney Larry Meyerson, who works with Essex County Adult Protective Services, said case workers have to investigate reported cases within 72 hours under state law.