Social worker raises alarm on elder abuse

Social worker raises alarm on elder abuse

Senior caregivers urged to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable

Social worker Helen Hunter told Greater MetroWest CARES professionals that “a lot of education and awareness needs to be out there” to protect the elderly from abuse. 
Social worker Helen Hunter told Greater MetroWest CARES professionals that “a lot of education and awareness needs to be out there” to protect the elderly from abuse. 

Some 85 caregivers employed by 11 agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ heard a geriatric social worker declare that the problem of senior abuse is growing, within and outside the Jewish community.

“The number of people aging is increasing, and they are living longer,” said Helen Hunter, an independent geriatric social worker consultant and trainer from Middlesex Borough who has worked with senior citizens for 34 years. “Many are being cared for at home, and possibly some caregivers are not trained to know how to deal with folks who are in bad condition.”

This situation means “there is a lot of education and awareness that needs to be out there,” said Hunter, addressing a May 6 meeting at the Aidekman campus in Whippany. The gathering was convened by Greater MetroWest CARES (Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services), a collaboration among Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its partner agencies whose purpose is to create a continuum of care for adults 60 years and older.

The meeting was held in response to the growing concern regarding the issue of elder abuse, as reflected in the NJ Legislature’s recent approval of bipartisan legislation that would establish a “New Jersey Task Force on Abuse Against the Elderly and Disabled.” The bill has passed both houses and is awaiting consideration by Gov. Chris Christie. 

Hunter told the attendees that such abuse “can take many forms — violent, sexual, and emotional as well as neglect and exploitation of the senior’s financial resources.” 

Speaking to professionals who work with seniors at such agencies as Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and JFS of Central NJ; the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, which runs four area senior residence complexes; and Daughters of Israel, the multi-faceted skilled nursing facility in West Orange, Hunter said that in institutional settings “bullying is very close to abuse. There can be physical lashing out, there can be psychological and emotional bullying”; she urged the caregivers present to be on constant alert to identify such conduct and protect victims.

There are numerous possible reasons for such behavior, Hunter said; bullies may “have things in their lives they can’t control. They may have lost a spouse. They may have lost their home. They may have lost physical capacities and feel because they may have lost control of other aspects of their lives, they have to lash out to regain control by finding someone more vulnerable than themselves.”

Their elderly victims may have passive personalities, enabling the abusive treatment. She also warned of those who fail to stop the bullies. “It is very challenging for the bystanders to know what to do. They may feel like victims who feel, ‘If I say something I may be the next victim,’” Hunter said. 

Later, in an interview with NJ Jewish News, Hunter emphasized that abuse “doesn’t just occur in nursing homes, but in community settings and homes as well.”

“We believe one in 10 people over the age of 60 can be abused, most likely by someone they know and trust — a family member or a close friend as opposed to a professional person…. A lot of factors are involved,” said Hunter. “Family members can be under a lot of stress and they don’t know how to handle stress, so they take it out on the older person. Maybe the older person says something that they don’t like, and they will lash out at the older person.” 

Hunter advised those who visit their elderly parents in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities to “look for physical signs — bedsores and bruises.” 

There can also be less readily apparent symptoms shown by a parent who is being mistreated, she said. “If there are changes in personality — maybe they are not as talkative or have become more isolated. They may feel more afraid or fearful. Those are things to look out for,” said Hunter.

Seated together at the seminar, Sharon Seiden of Livingston, chair of Greater MetroWest CARES, and Cecille Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest, told NJJN that senior abuse exists in the local Jewish community, as it does in much of society.

“The abuse exists in many forms and it can be from a spouse, a child, a nurse, or [a repairman] who walks into your house,” said Seiden. “You just don’t know, and it is not easy to detect. It is a tricky thing to be able to decipher.” 

The event’s keynote speaker, Theresa Redling, DO, medical director of geriatric health and disease management at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, discussed the different types of physical abuse of elders and how to recognize signs of such treatment in patients and clients.

Chaplains have an important role to play in detecting abuse, said Asekoff. “Our chaplains have an opportunity to observe abuse in hospitals. They enter a patient’s room without an agenda to distract them. They are not taking blood pressure or drawing blood.” 

To Asekoff, abuse and bullying “are a reflection of what is happening in the general community. You hear more about bullying in the schools and the workplaces that we never heard about before.” 

“My message is to be educated and be aware of the different forms of elder abuse and to speak up and be an advocate for those who may be vulnerable and can’t speak up for themselves,” Hunter told NJJN. “Don’t look the other way. If you see something, say something.”

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