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Abuse of the Elderly Rises Dramatically

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 1.5 million elderly Americans may be victims of physical or mental abuse each year, most frequently by members of their own families, the House Aging Committee will report today. A nationwide survey, the first since 1981, shows that incidents of abuse have been increasing, and now touch 1 in 20 persons over the age of 65. The survey results--based on data gathered by states in 1988--are a combination of actual reports and estimates.

The most likely victims are women over 75, and the abuser is frequently the son of the victim, according to an investigative survey by the Aging Committee’s health subcommittee.

The report, with pictures of victims and details of their sufferings, offers a litany of fear and violence: A 77-year-old California woman told police her son hit her on the head with beer bottles, and a 71-year-old Massachusetts man suffered a six-inch gash in his forehead when his son struck him with a frying pan. In Montana, an elderly woman refused to give her nephew money, and he gave her a black eye, threatened to kill her and set fire to a ranch.

“We have surveyed the states and found that the incidence of elder abuse is up a dramatic 50%, from 1 million victims in 1980 to 1.5 million today,” said Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the aging committee, which holds a hearing on the issue today.

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“The lack of meaningful elder abuse programs and funding, coupled with the rapid growth of America’s elderly population, is a prescription for even greater disaster than now exists,” Roybal said.

In Los Angeles County, reports of elder abuse have risen 300% in four years, since the state passed a law making it mandatory for doctors and others to report cases of elder abuse, according to Ray Garcia, assistant director of the Department of Public Social Services.

“People do not understand it is so widespread,” Garcia said. “It’s the way we thought of child abuse in the 1970s. We all felt this happens only with poor families in depressed parts of town, but we have learned it happens in every socio-economic area.” The county toll-free number for confidential reporting of abuse is 1-800-992-1660.

Roybal hopes his hearing will stimulate Congress to increase federal grants to help the states “in identifying and helping these tragic victims. This is a crisis of epic proportions and we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

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Only one in eight cases of elder abuse is reported to the police or welfare and social service agencies, the Aging Committee report estimated. Victims “are often ashamed to admit their children or (other) loved ones abuse them or they may fear reprisals if they complain.”

The report described typical victims and abusers: “Alcoholism, drug addiction, marital problems, and long-term financial difficulties all play a role in bringing a person to abuse his or her parents. The son of the victim is the most likely abuser, followed by the daughter of the victim. It is interesting to note that the abuser, in many cases, was abused by the parents as a child.”

The abuse of the elderly covers a wide variety of behavior, including theft, neglect and verbal harassment, as well as physical attacks. The report cited the case of an 80-year-old California woman found “locked in her home, malnourished, ill and isolated,” a prisoner of grandsons, who were alcoholics and cocaine abusers.

The grandsons “had kept their grandmother isolated from all outside contact, denying entry to visiting nurses and canceling Meals on Wheels. They had also cashed their grandmother’s Social Security checks and had almost depleted her bank account,” the report said.

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