By Risa Breckman and Laurell Haapanen
April 12, 2018
One in ten older adults are victims of elder mistreatment each year. Many of them are injured physically, devastated emotionally, and hurt financially. But there is another large group of underserved people also suffering along with the elder abuse victims.
Recent research indicates that 44 million adult Americans have provided assistance to an elder abuse victim. These family, friends and neighbors—also known as “concerned persons”—are often the first to know about the elder abuse, hearing it through their walls, witnessing the decline in the victim’s health, or noticing distress. They provide emotional and practical support to the victims, for example, by offering encouragement and advice, discussing options, identifying resources, reporting abuse, and even gathering evidence. These people are frequently the only ones preventing the victims from becoming totally isolated.
The same research uncovered a serious problem: most of the millions of concerned persons experience considerable distress when assisting elder abuse victims. Anecdotal evidence indicates they can become victims of abuse themselves, figuratively and literally taking hits while protecting the older adult, experiencing verbal abuse, and tapping into their own finances to cover shortfalls created by financial exploitation.
The national Elder Justice Roadmap (2014) identified the need for services for this population. Direct services would be designed specifically to increase the safety of concerned persons, reduce their distress, and prevent their becoming burned out and disengaged with the elder abuse victims they are assisting.
However, options remain scant, and there are significant barriers to overcome. For example, professionals tend to view the concerned person solely as a reporter of abuse, a source of information about the victim’s situation, or a potential part of a care plan, failing to see their significant need for assistance as well. At the organizational level, programs are designed to help the victims but not concerned persons, and funding for services tailored to their unique needs is limited. Because concerned persons are often singularly focused on finding assistance for the victim, they can be reluctant to seek help for themselves. They may also underestimate their own distress or the degree to which their safety is compromised.
In response, in September 2017, the NYC Elder Abuse Center (www.nyceac.org) launched a pilot Helpline for Concerned Persons serving family, friends, and neighbors of NYC-residing elder abuse victims. The Helpline provides concerned persons with support, information, and referrals. The Helpline staff also conducts workshops for professionals and the public on the experiences and needs of this underserved population.
The Helpline is one example of a service aimed at meeting the needs of concerned persons. There are other possibilities. For example, support groups, similar to those formed for caregivers of people with dementia or other illnesses, could prove beneficial for concerned persons. Or perhaps “peer navigators” could be utilized to help concerned persons negotiate the many systems and organizations involved with an elder abuse case. These navigators would have personal experience working with those same agencies.
What additional solutions can our community of elder abuse professionals offer to concerned persons? Please share your ideas!
Risa Breckman, LCSW, is the Executive Director of the NYC Elder Abuse Center. Laurell Haapanen, MA, is the specialist for the Helpline for Concerned Persons.