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‘It’s about time’: World Elder Abuse Awareness Day marks year of attention on older adults

Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Members of the Erie County Council on Elder Abuse holds signs outside Erie County Hall Tuesday for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Buffalo officials observed World Elder Abuse Awareness Day following a year and pandemic that in many ways pushed older adults to the forefront.

The occasion has been officially recognized by the United Nations since 2011, but the local law enforcement and human services officials who gathered Tuesday outside Erie County Hall say there’s been more attention on older adults over the last year due to COVID-19 than any year they can remember.

“It's about time,” said Kathy Kanaley, president of the Erie County Council on Elder Abuse. “I've been in this business a long time and seen all kinds of stuff. Finally shedding light on these issues and having the community response, the media response, is great.”

The earliest reports of the novel coronavirus last year indicated those 65 and older were at greater risk to become seriously ill. That held true, as older adults represent about 80% of the United States’ approximately 600,000 COVID deaths. Nursing homes become the epicenter, accounting for nearly a third of U.S. COVID deaths.

Before older adults were prioritized for the vaccine rollout, there were efforts to keep older adults socially distanced. There was theexpansion of Meals on Wheels, establishing senior grocery hours, and directives for those over 70 to stay home and limit visitors.

However, local officials say keeping older adults isolated also led to more abuse.

Kanaley is a social worker for the Center for Elder Law and Justice, a Buffalo nonprofit legal agency for older adults. It reports an 18% increase in elder abuse cases, or about 200 additional cases, over the last year.

Most often, that abuse was done by a caregiver, Kanaley said.

“Just think: You're stuck in a house where you hear the same verbal abuse over and over again,” she said. “And where's the person who needs the care going to go? Especially last year with nursing homes. I mean, nobody wanted to go to a nursing home, even a five-star nursing home, because of COVID. So it just forced the issue of people having to stay home and being at the mercy of their caregivers, who were most likely their exploiters.”

There’s also been an uptick in “romance scams,” in which scammers call or email older adults offering companionship but really seek financial gain, said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. 

“They've been isolated for the past year and a half due to COVID and they're more susceptible,” Flynn said, adding he expects to soon announce indictments related to these romance scams.

 Approximately one in 10 older Americanshave experienced some form of elder abuse, according to the National Council on Aging. However, elder abuse is also believed to be massively underreported, with some estimates that only one in24 cases are reported to authorities.

Much of the elder abuse that local officials have seen has been financial. An Erie County social worker pleaded guilty in February to stealing over $42,000 in Social Security benefits from her mostly elderly clients.

It’s already estimated that older Americans are scammed out of at least $36 billion every year, according to the National Council on Aging. However, local officials fear that stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits caused older adults to be scammed out of even more money.

“It sweetened the pot,” Kanaley said.

There’s also been more attention on abuse in nursing homes. New York state has had over 13,000 nursing home residents die of COVID-19. A report by state Attorney General Letitia James found some for-profit nursing homes diverted money to related parties rather than investing in staffing and personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

The report said the AG’s office is now investigating over 20 nursing homes whose conduct raised “particular concern.”

However, local officials at Tuesday’s gathering did not mention nursing homes in their prepared remarks.

Michael Russo, the state’s assistant attorney general in charge of the Buffalo office, when asked by WBFO about the AG investigation, said they were there to “honor the protection of our seniors.” He deferred any comment about nursing homes to the AG’s head office.

There is some help on the way for combating elder abuse. Erie County Adult Protective Services announced Tuesday it has received a $275,000 grant from the federal government to expand its investigations of abuse, neglect and exploitation in the context of the pandemic. It was the largest of any New York county outside of New York City.

Local officials said their theme for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is “Reach Out, Speak Out,” encouraging people to check in with seniors. 

“I ask that you reach out to your family, to your friends, to your neighbors, to anybody who is vulnerable, and ask them to speak out, to speak out and help us hold their abusers accountable,” Kanaley said.

“Elder abuse awareness and senior safety is everyone's responsibility in our community.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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