Posted on June 12, 2017 at 11:28 AM
Vice President for Aging and Health Policy
Why I Am Tired and Inspired
Kathy Greenlee is the Vice President for Aging and Health Policy at the Center for Practical Bioethics. She previously served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging and Administrator of the Administration for Community Living from 2009 to 2016. She will be the keynote speaker at “A Conference on Elder Rights and Protection” in Maui, Hawaii on June 15, 2017, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
The United Nations recognizes June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Started in 2006 by Elizabeth Podnieks of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, the day has become an international opportunity to highlight the global problem of the abuse of older people.
During my tenure as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging, I had the honor of observing “World Day” in venues as exotic as the White House and the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The problem of abuse of the aged is ubiquitous. It happens in every corner of the world, in every culture. Unfortunately and outrageously, it happens to one out of every 10 older adults in the United States.
The impact of abuse can be immediate, such as a sudden punch or a sexual assault. It can develop over time, as is the case with older adults who are neglected and allowed to languish, decline and die from the horrible circumstances that accompany the failure to receive care. Elder abuse can be caused by family members who strike out because of stress, anger or greed. It can be perpetrated by strangers who befriend older people on the telephone or through the internet or who come through the front door. Criminals prey on the cognitive decline associated with advancing age and the presence of dementia.
Reasons to Be Tired
I became aware of the scourge of elder abuse over 25 years ago when I worked in the Office of the Kansas Attorney General as a young lawyer. In many ways, I have grown up with this issue as a professional. Four aspects of the issue – euphemisms at best and excuses at worst — continue to motivate and anger me.
1. I am tired of calling elder abuse “scams.” I have not set out to banish the word. But it’s simply not strong enough. These aren’t scams, they are crimes. Older people aren’t tricked, they are exploited. They aren’t stupid, they are scared. By referring to the targeting of older people as scams, we fail to warn sufficiently. We need to do a better job of telling people: When you get old, people will target you and some will try to hurt you. Be aware, be informed and be careful.
2. I am tired of ageism. One of the root causes of abuse is the societal devaluing of old people. Older adults are dismissed, talked down to, ridiculed and, most tragically, ignored. Despite the overwhelming presence of older people in society, on an individual level, older people become invisible. We stop seeing them and we lose them. And in the shadows of their isolation, criminals prey.
3. I am tired of talking about older adults when we should be working with them. I feel strongly that the greatest deficit in the field of aging is the lack of presence of older people themselves. In 1984, I was trained as a volunteer in a domestic violence program. The domestic violence movement in this country was started by formerly battered women. The same can be said about the work against sexual assault. Rape survivors lead the way by bravely speaking out. This is not the case with the work to end elder abuse. The champions in this work are people just like me, professionals who are angered to the point of action and have been for years. We need to provide support and seek opportunities for older people to address the problem of abuse directly and publicly.
4. I am tired of calling them victims, yet we must hold onto this language. It is a crime to hit, slap, rape, abandon, neglect, drug and steal from older adults. Even and especially when the perpetrator is a member of the family. We need adult protective services, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to recognize these crimes. We need to stop dismissing these crises as family matters.
Reasons to Be Inspired
I am ready to call them survivors. The most hopeful part of the work to end elder abuse is starting to emerge. We need to understand resilience. What does it mean to survive abuse in old age? How does “trauma informed care” relate to these issues? How does a person who needs functional support continue to thrive? How do victims set their own course and live the rest of their lives as survivors?
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is a day to reflect, focus and applaud. We need this day. We need to shout and talk and listen. We need to tell each of you in the community, “We have a serious problem.” Older people are not safe. For every year we recognize World Day, each of us has taken another lap toward our own old and older age. On this day, we join the world in the sobering acknowledgement of an international epidemic. I am inspired by this work. Inspired by older people. Inspired by survivors. Inspired by our determination to bring this epidemic out into the open and fight together for it to end.
National Center on Elder Abuse