Sponsored by the East Alabama Commission’s Community Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, the workshop Thursday at the Parker Memorial Baptist Church Gymnasium is free to the public and professionals not attending for continuing education credits. Experts on elder abuse law and adult protection will discuss the increasing problem the aging population faces, sometimes by the very people who are supposed to care for them.
Maureen Newton is a professor at the Jacksonville State University Department of Sociology and Social Work. Newton teaches about aging, conducts research on the topic and has worked in hospice care. The risks associated with getting older can be great, Newton explained.
Many older people live alone, she said, and may be isolated with fewer friends and family because of their age. That can leave them vulnerable to people wishing to do them harm, she explained.
The death of an Anniston woman last week underscores Newton’s statement. Anniston police investigators believe 89-year-old Alma Fleming was stabbed to death by two people she hired to help her with chores. Both have been charged with capital murder during the commission of a burglary. Fleming would have turned 90 on Oct. 21.
“And almost all older people have a definite income,” Newton said. “They have a pension or they have Social Security. Some older people are not as trusting of banks and so they may be more likely to keep cash at home, and because they don’t drive as much or have access to somebody to take them places they might have more money at home.”
In August, 87-year-old Piedmont barber Curtis Pope was assaulted with a crowbar by a 24-year-old woman who had been borrowing money from him, a coworker of Pope’s said at the time. She had been asking for more money but Pope refused, the co-worker said. Heather Baldwin was charged with second-degree assault in the incident. She is scheduled to appear in court this week.
The elderly are often taken advantage of financially by people they know, including relatives who agree to care for them but instead take their cash or possessions, Newton explained.
“They’ll say, ‘I’ll move in with you but you have to sign your house over to me,’” Newton said. “And then the family member may end up kicking them out of the house anyway.”
Substance abuse among the elderly’s relatives is also the root of many instances of abuse and neglect, Newton said.
“Sometimes the older person will give them money, but the family member or friend wants more, and if they don’t get it they can become violent,” Newton said.
The incidence of elder abuse and neglect is likely larger than is thought, Newton said, because of underreporting by the elderly who may not want to get a family member or friend in trouble.
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging studied the problem of underreporting and found that about 551,000 people over the age of 60 experienced elder abuse, neglect or self-neglect that year. Only 21 percent of those incidents were reported or verified as substantiated – which means reports that were found by adult protection workers to be actual incidents of abuse or neglect – the study found.
And many elderly may not report because, “They’re afraid that they’re going to be institutionalized and they don’t want to be,” Newton said.
In Calhoun County, the number of adult abuse and neglect reports that have been substantiated increased by 123 percent from 2007 to 2012, when 107 such reports were verified.
Other counties don’t show that same trend, however. In Etowah County, the number of substantiated reports declined by 51 percent from 2007 to 2012, when 78 reports of abuse and neglect were substantiated. Jefferson County also saw a decline of 38 percent in those years, with 217 substantiated reports last year.
Etowah County has had higher overall per capita number of reports than Calhoun County, however, with 33 reports for every 10,000 residents from January through June of this year. Calhoun County recorded 23 reports for every 10,000 residents during that time. Jefferson County had 10 per 10,000 residents and Mobile County recorded 6 per 10,000 residents from January through June of this year.
Statewide, there was a slight drop in the number of total reports in the last six years. According to the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the number of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation reports throughout the state in 2012 was 4,098. In 2007 that number was 5,108.
But with an aging population, risk of elder abuse and neglect is expected to increase in the coming years, experts say. People are living longer lives and living with more chronic health problems, which make them even more vulnerable, Newton said.
Between 2010 and 2012, the number of Calhoun County residents 65 years of age or older increased by 4.6 percent to 17,782 residents.
A report by the Census Bureau found that in 2010 there were 5.8 million people age 85 or older. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 19 million people age 85 or older, the report states.
There have been recent moves in Alabama to give law enforcement and district attorneys more tools to stop elder abuse and neglect.
The Protecting Alabama’s Elders Act, signed into law in May by Gov. Robert Bentley, adds additional criminal codes to existing laws that had required a victim be found mentally incompetent before charges of financial exploitation could be filed.
Neal Morrison, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Senior Services, said by doing away with the mental competency requirement he believes the new law will have a chilling effect on those who wish to exploit the aging financially.
A third conviction of taking advantage of someone older than 60 financially can result in a life sentence, Morrison said. He believes it’s the toughest such law in the nation.
Thursday’s elder abuse prevention and advocacy workshop will take place from 8 a.m. to1:30 p.m. at the Parker Memorial Baptist Church gymnasium. Seating is limited. Those wishing to attend are encouraged to pre-register by calling 256-435-5091.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.