It's a largely hidden problem, but there's more of it than you may think.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) reports a recent major study on the incidence rate of elder abuse found that between 7.6 and 10 percent of study participants had been abused in the previous year. NCEA estimates that only one in 14 cases of elder abuse ever comes to the attention of authorities.
It's a problem that's growing, NCEA data from adult protective services agencies show an increase in reports of elder abuse.
October is National Residents' Rights Month and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging is taking the opportunity to highlight the issue.
Residents' Rights Month is aimed at recognizing individuals living in long-term care facilities, but Pennsylvania's theme this year has a broader reach. The theme, "Speak Out Against Elder Abuse!", has set a goal of raising awareness of elder abuse and how to report it.
While the vast majority of elder abuse occurs outside of long-term care facilities, it is a continuing concern anywhere older Americans reside.
"Prevention and protection form the foundation for all of the department's programs," Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Brian Duke said in an Oct. 3 press release. "This year's theme emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing the serious issue of elder abuse through immediate action, facility practices, public policy and resident-centered decision making."
"Elder abuse is a nationwide problem," Bud Nolan, protective services supervisor with the Warren/Forest Area Agency on Aging, said. "Pennsylvania is no exception."
According to Nolan, locally, approximately ten percent of investigations center around long-term care facilities. Those cases are shared with the local ombudsman through the state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.
"The state Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is designed to support and empower people by resolving individual complaints involving long-term care services," Wilmarie Gonzalez, state director of the program, said in the Oct. 3 press release.
The Warren/Forest Area Agency on Aging's Older Adult Protective Services participates in investigation of all incidences of abuse, whether in long-term care or elsewhere.
According to Nolan, protective services investigate allegations of abuse of individuals age 60 or older in cases of physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse or in cases of neglect or abandonment.
"We see a majority of the cases being allegations of financial exploitation, followed closely by allegations of neglect," Nolan said. "My opinion is that elder abuse is under reported. We've had a recent increase in reports, which is bad that abuse is occurring, but good that people are finally reporting it in an effort to protect our seniors."
It's a growing problem.
The U.S. population is aging. The 2010 census recorded the greatest number and proportion of individuals age 65 and older in census history, with 40.3 million people constituting 13 percent of the total population. By 2050, those age 65 and older are estimated to reach 20 percent of the national population, or one in five individuals. In fact, those age 85 and older constitute the nation's fastest growing age group.
"As our population continues to age, the problem of elder abuse will continue to grow," Nolan said. "Unfortunately, elder abuse prevention is woefully under-funded, compounding the issue. To put it in perspective, the U.S. spends more on the prevention of animal abuse that it does on elder abuse prevention."
To report elder abuse, call 1-800-281-6545. The number is toll free and open 24 hour a day, seven days a week.