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How seniors can defend against abuse
By Tona Kunz, Daily Herald
October 23, 2003

 The parents of a teenaged alcoholic paid her rent - just to get her out of the house.

When she was in her mid-20s and married, her folks bailed out the couple during the husband's frequent bouts with unemployment.

When she was in her early 40s, the graying mom and dad were almost entirely supporting their daughter and her two children.

Today, the parents are on a fixed income, and the drain has become financial as well as emotional.

The mother, now in her 70s, likens it to "a hostage situation" and says it took years and the moral support of other parents in similar situations before she could bring herself to stop sending cash.

"She is holding a certain power by holding the children," she said.

The woman used to lead Tough Love, an Elmhurst support group for senior citizens abused by adult children.

In reality, health officials say, it is the seniors who end up living like hostages.

Seniors who find their pocketbooks drained by adult children represent one of the most prominent forms of elder abuse. It's increasing, too, as layoffs, divorce and skyrocketing housing costs send more adult children back home.

"We are seeing more of the white collar people who have a sense that they are entitled to their inheritance - and they want it now," said Augusta Clarke, assistant state's attorney for DuPage County 's special victims unit.

The adult children may simply borrow money again and again to pay off credit card debt; some go as far as taking over their parents' power of attorney and eventually their home.

Less prevalent are adults who neglect or physically or verbally abuse elderly parents or friends.

Healthy DuPage, a not-for-profit group aimed at raising community awareness of quality-of-life issues, wants seniors to know help is out there. A free forum Thursday will offer seniors tips on how to break free of their children and help neighbors recognize when to step in.

One suggestion is to call Northeast Illinois Area Agency on Aging anonymous hotline at (800) 528-2000 or the Illinois Department of Aging senior hotline at (800) 252-8966.

"Not even the victim knows who called, so there is protection," said Mary Persinger, DuPage County Senior Services administrator.

Staggering problem

Every seven minutes an elderly person is abused, neglected or exploited in Illinois , according to the Illinois State Triad. DuPage's prosperity doesn't make it immune to the problem. The county's senior services department investigated 206 cases of elder abuse cases in non-institutional settings last year.

"The statistics show the incidents of elder abuse are on the increase, and as the Baby Boomers enter old age, the incidents will be even higher," said Bette Lawrence-Water, Healthy DuPage initiatives director.

The special victims unit investigates 50 or 60 complaints at nursing homes in the county annually. A little fewer than half of the complaints result in neglect prosecutions.

The best way to avoid having a relative become a victim is to visit the nursing home at different times of day and ask to see the Illinois Department of Aging's survey of the facility. Every nursing home is required to keep the previous year's report on hand, Clarke said.

The special victims unit also helps seniors abused by mentally ill children by offering a mental health court that offers therapy instead of jail time. The court was created because attorneys kept finding abused seniors who refused to press charges if it meant putting their children behind bars.

Legal and health experts expect elder abuse cases to continue to increase as the country ages, seniors live longer and rates of dementia increase. Already, the number of abuse cases increase about 5 percent a year, said Erik Weakly, regional coordinator for the Northeastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging.

Although the problem gets more attention than in the past, the number of seniors abused far exceeds the number helped.

"I'd say it's 20 years behind child abuse and domestic abuse in terms of awareness," Weakly said.

Many people don't recognize it without bruises, but physical abuse accounts for less than 10 percent of elder abuse.

Senior neglect

Sometimes the neglect can be as innocent as a child locking a senior with Alzheimer's in a room to keep them from wandering off. Or it can be as shocking as the case involving John Lear of Naperville .

In May, he laid newspapers under his 75-year-old mother to absorb her waste as she lay on the floor of her garbage-strewn condominium for days. She was unable to get up unaided because of health problems. Lear was convicted of neglect after his mother called a state-run senior housing facility to look for an opening.

Neglect and verbal abuse often force seniors to abandon their homes. Some trade spacious homes for tiny apartments just so they have landlords that can keep their children out using occupancy rules, health officials said.

Metropolitan Family Services offers temporary housing in Elmhurst for seniors afraid to live with their children. The seniors reside there while they seek home sharing or senior housing options through the county.

Moving seniors out of their homes is a last resort. Officials use caregiver stress maintenance programs, adult day-care centers and in-home respite care first.

Financial exploitation

Experts say the vast majority of elder abuse involves money - be it a senior supporting a child, a child secretly draining a bank account or scam artists preying on seniors.

Seniors are likely targets for telephone solicitors or others who offer to do such seasonal work as driveway black-topping or chimney cleaning. The best way for seniors to protect themselves is to have housework done only by referral and to never give out private information on the phone unless the senior initiated the call.

Experts say seniors are much more likely to be robbed by friends or family members.

Abuse can have innocuous starts, such as when a relative is given power of attorney. The senior may not realize a problem until checks start bouncing or bills arrive for outlandish goods the senior didn't buy.

"Financial exploitation happens everywhere," Weakly said. "It doesn't matter if the senior has $750 in Social Security or $7 million."

The county senior services department offers a money management program that has volunteers oversee finances for seniors victimized by greedy family members or caretakers.

Banks also report mysterious withdrawals or strangers who escort seniors to withdraw out money. Much of the financial abuse remains hidden until seniors end up broke, asking for a handout themselves.

It's hard for many seniors to admit they're being victimized by family members, the former Tough Love leader says.

"Some of the things we go through, we don't discuss with neighbors over the back fence."

Abuse: Experts say seniors most often hurt by family

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