Elder abuse: A faith-based response

What local congregations can do to ease the rise in the abuse of the elderly

Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., is a United Methodist pastor and clinical psychologist working in New York City, New York, United States.
Harold G. Koenig, M.D., is professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, United States.

Winnie, age 81, lives with her divorced, alcoholic son Robert, who is under a lot of pressure at work and takes his frustration out on her. During a visit to the home, the parish nurse discovers that Robert frequently attacks Winnie verbally and physically. She also notices Winnie has several prominent bruises on her face. Winnie pleads with the nurse to keep their family problems secret and pray for her son.

Hattie, age 86, is in poor health and recently moved to a nursing home, where Father Toal offers the sacrament of Communion weekly. Hattie has no family and few friends in the city where she lives. She tells the priest that she has been verbally abused and threatened by staff when she has reported her missing valuables.

These are typical examples of elder abuse.

Research indicates that clergy are one of the most likely groups of professionals to encounter cases of elder abuse.

Elder abuse is a form of domestic violence that is almost as prevalent as child abuse. Elder abuse is the mistreatment or neglect of an older person, usually by a relative. It may include physical violence, threats, verbal abuse, financial exploitation, neglect, or sexual abuse.

Elder abuse is largely a hidden problem. The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that only 1 in 14 of the between 1.5 and 2 mil lion annual cases of abuse are actually report ed. Faith communities can play a critical role in the prevention of elder abuse, though, learning to identify and appropriately responding to the problem.

What faith communities can do

Reporting elder abuse is the act of a responsible person trying to assist an older person in crisis. In the United States most states operate toll-free telephone hotlines to answer questions and report elder abuse. These phone agencies usually immediately report elder abuse to a state agency, such as Adult Protective Services or the Department on Aging. In most situations the appropriate local agency promptly sends a social worker to the home to make an assessment and recommendations for appropriate interventions. Reports can be made anonymously.

Faith communities can aid in the prevention of elder abuse through fostering public awareness about the problem and providing services and information to families at risk. Further, caregivers for the elderly often indicate that a support group, where they can discuss their problems and find emotional support, would be of the greatest help.

These caregivers also indicated that short-term respite and help with basic household chores would make it much easier for them to cope with the high stress levels that are some times a part of caring for the elderly. These are exactly the sort of services that churches can readily offer to at-risk families.

An additional element in preventing elder abuse is the significant religious value which teaches that no one should be subjected to abusive or neglectful behavior. It is natural for faith communities to hold and promote these values. When older adults are regarded as disposable, society fails to recognize the importance of assuring dignified and respectful living situations for all.

In addition to promoting positive social attitudes toward seniors, faith communities can take positive steps to educate people about elder maltreatment and to encourage interventions, which help families cope with problems that contribute to abuse.

Those aged 80 and older were at the great est risk of mistreatment. Many victims are frail, vulnerable, and dependent on others.

A recent study showed that nearly 50 percent of persons aged 85 or older (the fastest growing segment in the American population) living at home displayed all the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Over the next 30 years, the number of persons with this disorder in the United States is expect ed to rise from 4 million to nearly 14 million.

Because of increasingly limited space in nursing homes, most of these individuals will be cared for at home by their families families who will need care and support from their church, mosque, or synagogue to help them cope with caregiver stress. Faith communities need to be involved in educating congregants about the normal aging process as well as the emotional and social functioning needs of the cognitively impaired and their families. Care is stress-ridden in any situation, but more so without well-directed preparation.

U.S. organizations that provide additional information on elder abuse and its prevention include:

Administration on Aging (AOA); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC 20201; (202) 619-0724; <www.aoa.gov>; Eldercare Locator: (800) 677-1116.

Interfaith Caregivers Alliance; 112 West 9th, Suite 600, Kansas City, MO 64105; (816) 931-5442; has existed since 1987 to develop and support interfaith volunteer caregiving programs across the U.S.

National Center on Elder Abuse; 1225 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 898-2586; <www.elderabusecenter.org>. The Web site includes a state-by-state listing of rel evant toll-free telephone humbers.

National Long Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center; c/o National Citizen's Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, 1424 16th Street, NW, Suite 202, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 332-2275; <www.nccrihr.org>.

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Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., is a United Methodist pastor and clinical psychologist working in New York City, New York, United States.
Harold G. Koenig, M.D., is professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, United States.

November 2003

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