I haven’t seen my friend “Sue” in too many months, and I am shocked by the person who approaches me. Her gait is slow and favors one side, and she seems disheveled, like she left home without a chance to even comb her hair. Worse still, she avoids eye contact, glancing down and away when we meet. “What has happened,” I blurted out. “Are you all right?”
Seeing someone who appears so different, and almost afraid to speak to you directly, certainly sets off warning bells. Is someone taking advantage of her? How about her health? And imagine if you were Sue: Can you tell your friend someone is taking advantage of you, or you’re not taking good enough care of yourself?
Heading off the vulnerability
One of the great fears of older adults is vulnerability – by definition, the feeling of being easily harmed or attacked, either physically or emotionally. How can we prevent abuse from happening in our lives, where can we go, who can we call?
“About 1 in 10 people over 60 are experiencing some form of mistreatment, and most mistreatment is unreported, so the numbers are likely much higher,” Cheryl Conley, director of social services with Memory Lane Care Services in Toledo, said.
She offers other frightening statistics: most victims of elder abuse are women, and 30% of people with dementia live by themselves (50% of them have no caregivers). Most abuse takes one of several forms (in order of occurrence in Ohio):
- Self-abuse – not getting out to do things, not caring for oneself, not taking medication
- Exploitation – bills aren’t getting paid, caregiver’s name is added to the bank account, belongings are turning up missing
- Neglect – the older adult is being left alone, not taken to appointments, kept from seeing people
- Emotional abuse – being threatened, humiliated, intimidated
- Physical abuse – harm through physical actions, such as hitting, slapping, restraint, etc.
- Sexual abuse – unwanted sexual contact or forced sexual conduct
Helping us COPE as we age
There is a great deal of help here in Toledo, and older adults are not alone. Conley said there are multiple organizations and professionals who are mandatory reporters – people who are required to report evidence of abuse.
“In addition to police and fire professionals, doctors, dentists and nurses, organizations like banks and senior centers, social workers and government offices, homecare agencies, the Area Office on Aging and Memory Lane Care Services are also mandatory reporters,” she said.
There is also “a loose coalition of organizations who care about our elders” in Toledo, according to Conley. COPE – the Coalition of Organizations Protecting Elders – involves more than 100 agencies in this region cooperating to find resolution to individual abuse cases among older adults.
The group, headed by Conley and Judge Jack Puffenberger of the Lucas County Probate Court, meets monthly to discuss possible abuse cases and what organizations can help. Members have an online discussion board for cases.
“We put our heads together in our monthly meetings to find solutions to specific cases,” Conley said. “We exist to help create a safe and dignified life for older adults.”
Finding the solutions
“COPE isn’t a place you call,” Conley said. “I might not know how to resolve a particular case, but I belong to COPE and someone there will know what to do.” Key to the solution process, and the first call “Sue” or her friends can make is to the county Adult Protective Services office.
“People shouldn’t be scared of Adult Protective Services,” Conley said. “They are non-judgmental and assess no blame. They ask, ‘How can we help?’ before doing anything else.”
Christopher Jones, coordinator with Adult Protective Services as a part of Lucas County Job & Family Services, explained that 1,800 Lucas County referrals were made to his office in 2022, from mandatory reporters and individuals.
“Older adults (if they’re able) can make a choice from the options available to them,” he said.
He encourages those in need to contact Adult Protective Services at 419-213-8663. In addition, the Senior Protection Unit is an innovative program created by Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates to educate seniors and help them protect themselves from becoming victims of elder abuse and exploitation. Contact their senior help line at 419.936.2040 with questions.