Gov. Tom Corbett has declared June “Elder Abuse Awareness Month” in Pennsylvania.
“I often say elder abuse is America’s dirty little secret. When you look at child abuse, domestic violence and other things, it really is an area that, for whatever reason, has been largely ignored,” said Joe Snyder, director of older adult protective services at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging
Pennsylvanians reported more than 18,500 cases of elder abuse last year.
“The numbers are high, they continue to grow,” said Brian Duke, secretary of the state Department of Aging. “Over the last five years, we’ve seen an increase in the growth overall.”
The rising volume of claims does not mean that these numbers tell the whole story.
“We’re aware there’s a lot of under-reporting and non-reporting of abuse,” said Duke. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think that as much as 20 percent of abuse is actually reported.”
The CDC defines elder abuse as a blanket term for all forms of neglect, physical, emotional and even financial abuse. The most common type of abuse is neglect – either by a caretaker or seniors themselves, known as self-neglect.
Snyder says self-neglect is especially difficult to address. “It’s often somebody who has fallen through the cracks and has never known anybody, or someone who has had a sudden change,” he said.
Jennifer Hruslinsky, victim advocate with the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly in Philadelphia, has noticed an increase in the call volume for the center’s helpline. She says the economy and pre-existing mental health conditions both contribute to a recent uptick in elder abuse cases.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in need. I think the economy is causing a lot of people to be moving back home,” she said. “A lot of family members who may be suffering from substance abuse issues or mental health issues might all be living with the senior.”
Hruslinksy thinks that public awareness is important for getting more cases reported and educating the public about what counts as abuse. “The public should know exactly what abuse is and what rises to the level of a crime,” she said.
That information is going to stay relevant because Pennsylvanians are aging fast. Current projections put the number of people over 60 in the commonwealth at one out of every four residents by the year 2020.
The commonwealth ranks as the country’s fourth “grayest” – or oldest – state in the union, behind Florida, Maine and West Virginia.
Anyone wishing to report elder abuse – including self-neglect by seniors – can call the Department of Aging hotline or the local corporation for aging.
Philadelphia Corporation for AgingHelpline: (215) 765-9040
Pennsylvania Department of AgingElder abuse hotline: 1-800-490-8505