DUS Colorful Stories: See Me, Hear Me
Elder abuse and neglect affect one out of six adults over the age of 60. Healthcare professionals and human rights activists are scrambling to prevent the mistreatment of this vulnerable population, but unfair exploitation and abuse are the norm for many in the world’s elderly population, with rates expected to increase as the rapidly aging global population more than doubles from 900 million in 2015 to approximately two billion in 2050.
Denver Urban Spectrum Publisher Rosalind “Bee” Harris is all too familiar with the devastating effects of elder abuse. In 2008, Harris lost her 80-year old mother, Ruth Boyd, in a tragic and untimely incident, prompting Harris to pledge her support for the protection of aging adults.
In her soon-to-be-released memoir, “The Story of Ruth,” Harris tells the story of her mother’s southern upbringing, her family’s migration to the North, and the devotion she showed in raising her family. By sharing her mother’s story and shining a light on the nearly invisible epidemic of elder abuse, she hopes to prevent others from having to experience the heartbreaking loss of a loved one at the hands of an abuser.
On Nov. 3, 2008, people across the country gathered in anticipation of the next day’s historic presidential election. Harris spent the evening at a Democratic campaign rally in Denver, where First Lady Michelle Obama urged people to vote for her husband, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. At the end of the evening, Harris received a barrage of phone calls that interrupted her excitement and turned her life upside down.
The night before Obama was elected President of the United States, Harris learned that her mother had been violently killed in her Grand Rapids, Michigan home. When a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Boyd’s death revealed classic signs of elder abuse, Harris turned to advocacy to spread awareness. Ten years after her mother’s death, Harris established the Ruth Boyd Elder Abuse Foundation to provide education and resources to elders and caregivers.
Elder abuse is defined by the American Psychological Association as the infliction of physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm on an older adult, and includes neglect. With today’s social landscape producing increasingly severed intergenerational relationships, it is important that caregivers and loved ones know what signs to look for, and what to do if someone they know is a victim of abuse.
Elder abuse occurs when the vulnerabilities associated with aging are exploited. Aging is accompanied by numerous physical challenges, including decreased strength and agility, poor coordination, and memory loss. Additionally, several emotional changes increase susceptibility and the risk of abuse. Harris, whose mother had welcomed a younger relative to live in her home, acknowledges the difficulty many people face while aging independently. “Sometimes they want a family member there because they need a little help around the house, and they don’t want to be alone,” she says.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) estimates that 51 percent of people over the age of 75 are living alone. Loneliness has a significant impact on health, increasing the risk of obesity, stress,depressionand dementia, with effects on the body comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
While elder abuse is more likely to be reported by people living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities where staff may be poorly trained or overworked, living alone leaves elders more susceptible to codependent relationships that result in mistreatment,exploitationand neglect. Neglect occurs when caregivers fail to provide adequate assistance with mobility, the administration of medications, and general care. Neglect is often characterized by an unkempt appearance, malnutrition, and the repeated occurrence of avoidable health and hygiene issues.
Financial abuse and exploitation occur when the financial resources of an elderly person are misused or taken. Fraudulent business operations target the elderly to collect personal information for the falsification of records and unauthorized financial transactions. Though it is often difficult to identify, several signs indicate financial abuse, including unpaid bills, the disappearance of valuable belongings, large withdrawals from bank accounts, and checks written to “cash.” Financial abuse involving close friends and loved ones is often accompanied by emotional and verbal abuse, including threats and intimidation to silence victims.
Abuse and neglect are not easily detected, but caregivers and family members should watch for signs and behaviors that may signal a problem. While there are some obvious physical signs of abuse, such as bruising and repeated unexplained injuries, most signs of elder abuse are invisible.
Many strategies have been implemented to prevent abuse and identify signs that often go unrecognized by family and friends. Healthcare professionals use screening tools to examine uncharacteristic changes in behavior and appearance, while nursing homes and residential care facilities have mandatory reporting procedures that criminalize failure to report suspected abuse.
Providing care to an aging adult can be challenging for caregivers who do not seek support and assistance. Caregivers may become overwhelmed neglecting their own health and personal needs while attempting to live normal, fulfilling lives. A 2018 report on caregiving by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving revealed changing characteristics among caregivers. Instead of middle-aged adults caring for aging family members, nearly 10 million millennials between ages 18 and 34 are providing care for aging family members and friends, often while struggling to balance full-time employment.
Organizations like the National Center on Elder Abuse, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the National Council on Aging have increased efforts to support caregivers with interventions that provide support, educationand training. These organizations also provide opportunities for aging adults to connect with their communities, recognizing that feelings of belonging in a community are essential for quality of life.
Harris is excited about the Ruth Boyd Elder Abuse Foundation’s plans to provide safety resources and financial assistance for people in need. “The foundation will cover the cost of electronic medical alert devices for people who cannot afford them,” says Harris, whose primary concern is the ability for elders to communicate in the event of an emergency. In addition to establishing the foundation in her mother’s memory, Harris looks forward to the upcoming release of “The Story of Ruth.”
The loss of a loved one can be incredibly difficult for caregivers. For Harris, the process of learning about her mother’s life while researching and gathering information for her book was healing. She still struggles to cope withtheloss, but attributes her positive attitude and ability to endure to the support of friends and family, as well as feeling her mother’s presence in everything she does.
Harris is also preparing to open a bed and breakfast that captures the warm, loving essence her mother left behind. “Big Ma’s Place” will be a cherished establishment where people can gather and be well. “Life is precious. It can be taken away in a split second,” says Harris. “Don’t take life for granted.”
The most vulnerable members in our community must not be taken for granted. As society moves further away from community and collectivism, we all share the responsibility of honoring our beloved elders and protecting them from harm.
Editor’s note: To make an anonymous report of suspected elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, contact the Adult Protective Services Hotline at 720-944-4347.