More Seniors Means Greater Elder Abuse

by David Gorn

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Assembly member Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) cited an interesting statistic during a legislative session on elder abuse yesterday: "We have 10,000 people a day who are turning 65 in this country," Yamada said.

California has a higher percentage of seniors than other states, she said. "So," she added, "that means the silver tsunami is here."

With the increasing numbers of seniors comes an equally increasing need to do something about elder abuse, Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said.

"This is a dirty little secret, elder abuse," he said. "There's a lot of education that needs to happen on this issue, and a lot of sunlight needs to shine on the way we care for our elders. We have to ask: We are living longer, but are we living better?"

Yamada, who chairs the Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care, and Ammiano, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, co-chaired a panel during  yesterday's hearing -- the first joint session focusing on elder abuse.

According to Patricia McGinnis, executive director for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, abuse of seniors can take many forms -- from bilking them of money to keeping them quiet (and shortening their lives) with overuse of drugs.

"One in four residents in nursing homes and residential care facilities get anti-psychotic drugs," McGinnis said, "many without informed consent."

McGinnis said there's a need to increase civil and criminal punishment for mistreating seniors. That was music to the ears of Paul Greenwood, deputy district attorney for San Diego, who specializes in prosecuting crimes against seniors.

"It's not a civil matter," Greenwood said. "It's a crime. We've seen a huge spike in the prevalence of this. I am concerned that, over the next five years, we're going to see an avalanche of these cases."

Greenwood wants elder-abuse crimes to count as one of the strikes in the three-strikes law.

Wendy Aquin is a director of Adult Services and Assistance Programs in Orange County. She said the problem is compounded by most people's perception of it. "Elder abuse is less well understood than child abuse and domestic violence," Aquin said. "The response from law enforcement varies, and the court system is not always friendly. Many times they recommend civil recourses, but many elders don't have the financial means to do that."

Putting more regulation and restrictions on nursing homes and residential care facilities would be misguided, according to Dave Helmsin of the California Association of Health Facilities. "Facilities don't abuse people. People abuse people," Helmsin said. He added that most cases of elder abuse involve a family member, not a residential caregiver.

"We report more than any other health care provider," Helmsin said. "We operate under a microscope, and that may not be a bad thing. But we think that using such a broad definition of elder abuse, that creates an over-reporting environment."

Substandard care or neglect is a separate and important concern, he said. But neglect is not abuse, and he said it would be helpful to legislatively define neglect and abuse in any new attempt to regulate nursing homes.

"Our purpose here is not to point fingers," Yamada said. "It's in all of our interests to work together on this. For our parents, for ourselves," she said. "It's in our self-interest."


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