SAVE-ing seniors Task force tackles issues surrounding elder abuse

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

If someone as visible and well-known as former actor Mickey Rooney can become a victim of elder abuse, what slim chance does the normal, everyday older person have to escape the many different forms of the growing problem?

Those odds are greatly increased if Oakland County's SAVE has anything to do with it.

SAVE (Serving Adults Who Are Vulnerable and/or Elderly) task force members held a special media seminar November 4 on elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation to get the word out on the problems of elder abuse, provide statistics to show this problem is growing, and offer ways to spot elder abuse and get help.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick, SAVE task force chairman, said the elderly population in many ways is "a whole world of people who are forgotten."

"For too long abused elders have been an invisible problem," Sosnick said. "Who's out there to advocate for these folks?"

Sosnick and Lynn Alexander are, for sure. Both were advocates for the aging for a number of years, Sosnick as a county prosecutor, judge and someone who witnessed elderly abuse when pills intended for his elderly mother at a care facility were stolen, and Alexander for her work as Senior Citizen Advocate for Oakland County.

Together, the two saw the need for a more coordinated community response to elder abuse issues, and began SAVE in 2004. Using models of programs such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and others, Sosnick and Alexander brought together a number of organizations aimed at elderly issues and onto SAVE's roster.

Now, the SAVE task force roster includes senior service directors for municipalities, judges, officials from outreach and senior citizen centers, banks, police, prosecutors and others who offer their specialties with the main goal of creating awareness of elder abuse and exploitation and spreading out a net as wide as possible so that seniors who are abused, or people who suspect elderly abuse, have a place to go for help.

SAVE also hopes to put out its message in as many places as possible to not only inform the public, but to make lawmakers and policymakers sensitive to the need for better laws and more effective programs.

"If we all get together and coordinate with each other, maybe we can make a difference," Sosnick said.

He said SAVE is in the midst of holding a series of seminars to create awareness about the problem of elder abuse, educate policymakers, encourage victims to come forward for help, and hopefully serve as a deterrent " by warning perpetrators and potential abusers of the consequences of their actions."

The recent seminar was highlighted by statistics on elder abuse gathered by Collette Buccilli, who works at Hewlitt Packard and was a student at Cooley Law School working in the estate planning clinic. She gathered data for Sosnick on elder abuse and said she was "astonished" at the information she found. Buccilli said she was particularly touched by a quote she found from Mickey Rooney, speaking at a Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2011.

"I was unable to avoid becoming a victim of elder abuse," Rooney told the members.

He said he felt "powerless" with no control of his own life.

Buccilli said she learned from that and her fact-gathering that elder abuse can strike any senior citizen. And the forms include abuse, neglect, exploitation, sexual abuse, self-neglect, confinement, psychological abuse, intimidation, abandonment, misuse of medication, and isolation.

And Buccilli said the problem will grow as the population ages and the elderly segment adds to the numbers yearly. In Michigan, the median age "is rising quickly, and we are nearing the threshold to join the seven oldest states," Buccilli said.

But she said determining elder abuse is difficult because states define abuse differently -- only some have mandatory reporting, there is no central location for data -- and many cases go unreported. Buccilli found that, in Michigan, caregiver and self-neglect account for the majority of substantiated cases.

She also found that the National Center on Elder Abuse reported that, in 2006, the majority of perpetrators were found to be adult children and other family members. But many states are enacting new legislation, including Michigan, to protect seniors.

In closing, Buccilli used another quote from Rooney that may serve as a rallying point. "Have hope. Someone will hear you."

Dianne Shovely, vice president of Comerica Bank, said her institution became involved in tracking elderly fraud in 2004 and has taken steps to educate banking center ways to identify financial exploitation of elderly. As an active member of SAVE, she said the bank is trying to "do our part as a corporation" and also raise awareness so that if financial exploitation is suspected, her program is notified.

But she said their problem is getting the victim to tell the truth.

"There are people in these individuals lives that have got them so wrapped up in what they can do to them that they're very frightened to tell anyone much less their banker," she said. "But we think we're making a difference," she said.

Dustin Foster, an assistant professor at Cooley and Director of the Estate Planning Clinic, a collaboration between Cooley and Lakeshore Legal Aid, tries to help seniors as a SAVE task force member.

"It is through my work in the Estate Planning Clinic that I have consistent contact with senior clients and in which I have heard the allegations and concerns of abuse," he said. Foster said he is seeing much more financial abuse of the elderly, particularly but their own children.

"The sad part in these situations is that the parent's dependence upon the child typically prevents the parent from either recognizing the abuse or wanting to report the abuse for fear of loosing the child, because the child has become the caretaker," he said.

"That is why I believe that education is power."

He said it's important to educate the public about elder abuse, which is a gradual process. He said it's important to develop a network of assistance to "empower the victim to finally break the cycle of abuse."

Alexander believes SAVE is doing a good job, but as long as seniors are exploited and abused, its work must continue to push for awareness and laws to protect the elderly.

"It very much is a community outreach effort," she said.

"The most important thing is, we all have a responsibility to protect seniors," Alexander said. "They help to grow our communities. Our society can be judged by how it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens, so we all have a responsibility to protect seniors and speak up when we see something going on that isn't right.

"Because of efforts such as ours, more attention is being placed on these issues," Alexander said.

Lawmakers recently held an elder abuse summit and efforts from SAVE and other groups around the state are growing in momentum.

Her message is clear. We all need to SAVE the elderly population.

Suspected abuse or neglect should be reported to Oakland County Adult Protective Services at (248) 975-5010.

Additional information on SAVE can be found by contacting Alexander at (248) 410-0615, or at the Oakland County website, www.oakgov.com/seniors/.

Published: Thu, Nov 17, 2011