Stopping elder abuse requires action and open records

     <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-257070058/stock-photo-senior-man-walking-with-zimmer-frame.html'>Elder care</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Elder care image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    One-fifth of nursing home residents report abuse or neglect, but those numbers don’t include seniors who are too frightened to report abuse. We may be making progress toward more effective and moral systems of elder care, but that progress is way too slow.

    For the majority of my life, my grandmother worked for several nursing homes and independent living facilities around the Lehigh Valley. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of her scooping me out of school early to spend time with her at work. The residents in those homes loved having a child around. They talked to me about school, sports and books, and stuffed me full of ice cream and candy. Sometimes, I’d jump in a wheelchair and cruise around the facility with them.

    I walked into the nursing home one of those days to find the place silent. I remember my grandmother gently explaining to me that one of the residents had died. It all began to make sense. All of my elderly friends were visibly riddled with melancholy and attempting to veil it for the sake of a child’s innocence. They had lost a friend. The experience still resonates with me; it was one of my primary introductions to the concept of death.

    Luckily for that man, he was treated well. He was a resident in a high-end nursing home. Not many seniors in need of care have the opportunity to live out their golden years in a home like that. In fact, last year it was reported that one-fifth of nursing home residents report abuse or neglect. Frighteningly, those numbers are not remotely representative of the seniors who are too frightened to report abuse, much in the same way many domestic abuse cases are not reported.

    All too often I hear people gripe and bellyache about how we treat our elderly in this country without offering up any kind of long-term solution. We need more than whimpers; we need action. We may be making progress toward more effective and moral systems of elder care, but that progress is way too slow.

    And don’t think you won’t be affected.

    Look to your own future

    Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of senior citizens among the 50 states. We house the fourth-largest population of seniors over 85 years old (the demographic most in need of nursing home care). As of 2011, Pennsylvania assisted living homes and nursing homes house about 128,000 seniors. All of those people deserve to live comfortably.

    And the population is growing. Right now, a whopping 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s population (2.7 million people) is over 60 years old — and barring some natural disaster or mass elderly exodus, that population is projected to reach 3.3 million in the next five years.

    If you’re under 85, here’s how how “golden” your golden years could be:

    An overwhelming majority of senior citizens who suffer from varying degrees of dementia experience abuse but are incapable of reporting it. Further research has suggested that one in every 10 of Pennsylvanians over 60 and living at home suffers abuse or neglect. Sadly, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, only one out of every 14 cases of elder abuse is reported. Why? For starters, many seniors are simply unable to report abuse or neglect.

    Plane Paciunas fit into that statistic. The 89-year-old woman died last November in East Frankford following extreme neglect at the hands of her “caretaker” Jean Dombrowski. Paciunas was found half-conscious in her own home, and suffering from starvation. She was wrapped like a mummy and lying on a mattress covered in trash bags. Her bone-deep open wounds were crawling with maggots, lice and bugs.

    Can we start talking about solutions to elder abuse — now?

    In April 2013, the state formed a team of judiciaries chaired by Pa. Justice Debra Todd. The Elder Law Task Force took a year and a half to compile and release a 284-page report outlining 130 recommendations to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania regarding combat of elder abuse. The majority of these “recommendations” are an exercise in government futility. One super-brainy and fiercely researched “finding” includes this snippet of pure sovereign innovation:

    “Many free publications are available on the Internet to help elders and those who care about them learn the signs of elder abuse and how to prevent it.”

    Do you think, in her condition, that Plane Paciunas could have even picked up a phone to call 911 — let alone taken an afternoon stroll down to the local library branch to surf the web?

    To the Task Force’s credit, there is a single standout recommendation hinting at a potentially viable solution, and it comes late in the list at No. 114 of 130:

    “The Task Force recommends that, to the greatest extent possible, examination on identifying elder abuse and neglect be disseminated to the public in public forums, through the distribution of literature, and online.”

    Open it up

    If we want to truly commit to fighting elder abuse, we must take radical action. The only solution is to make every minute detail of every single report on abuse and neglect transparent and open to the public.

    We’ve seen transparency work wonders for a Philadelphia government once deemed “corrupt and contented.” In contrast, private entities like nursing home facilities have little obligation to shine a light on complaint records. Hence the word “private.” However, it’s the facilities’ job to take care of their residents. It’s what their employees are paid to do. In their failure to properly execute their duties, many nursing home employees are slowly executing their residents. The same standards should be held to live-in caretakers. I’m no proponent of Big Brother government, but when quality of life for hundreds of thousands in one state alone is at stake — that is ample ground for public interference.

    Unfortunately, the NCEA has reported that approximately 90 percent of abuse cases are committed by relatives of victims. Not only is this a repulsive and disheartening statistic, but it’s a problem rooted in a societal lack of respect for our aging citizens. And that goes deeper than anything a social program or government agency can remedy.

    However, we can focus attention on those we can help — the ones in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, independent living quarters and those who rely on live-in caretakers — with close monitoring by social workers and psychologists and open public records available for all to see. Radical? Absolutely. Costly? Fiscally, yes — but not nearly as costly as the lives lost in a culture internationally infamous for mistreating its elders.

    When I look back on those childhood days all of my elderly friends, thinking for a moment that any of them might have, under different circumstances, suffered at the hands of a “caregiver” who neglected their basic needs, it absolutely sickens me. Elder abuse is a stark, grim reality thousands of senior citizens are forced to live with every day. Empathize, if for just a moment. Consider your own friends and family, your friends’ parents and grandparents.

    Now is the time to start for action, for a real conversation and real solutions. Some of our most cherished citizens are suffering.

    If you are a senior citizen in need of assistance due to neglect and/or abuse at the hands of your caretaker, or if you have a friend or relative in this situation, please call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, right now, at 215-765-9040.

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