By Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, Jr.

The concept of justice is deeply ingrained in our American psyche. We learn as children to pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for liberty and justice for all. We learn in school about the Declaration of Independence reciting the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At sporting events and on other occasions, we hear and sign the rousing national anthem in which the first verse concludes: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Caring about elder abuse is caring about justice for all.

We believe that everyone deserves to feel safe, but there are a startling number of older adults who experience or remain at risk for abuse. Every year, an estimated 5 million — or 1 in 10 — older Americans experience elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation. Many experts agree that even these staggering figures are undercounts and believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, as many as 23.5 cases go unreported. *

Elder abuse affects older people across all socioeconomic groups, cultures, and races and can occur when they are disconnected from social supports. While older adults may experience the same crimes as other age groups — including financial, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect — they are less likely to report the crime and recover from their victimization.

Every year on June 15, communities around the world join to commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). WEAAD promotes awareness of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older people. For more information and resources on WEAAD, and to download a Faith Involvement Guide, visit: https://eldermistreatment.usc.edu/weaad-home/tools-and-tips/.

Eradicating a problem of this magnitude can’t be accomplished without advocacy, collaboration, and great effort. Significantly reducing elder abuse requires addressing social determinants associated with it such as ageism, low income and socioeconomic status, financial dependence, poor health, functional impairment, and social isolation. People with cognitive impairment are at heightened risk for abuse, neglect, exploitation, and undue influence. By age 85, nearly half of all older adults experience some level of cognitive impairment, which may jeopardize their ability to make rational or value-laden personal decisions.

In April 2002, I was invited to participate in the United Nations Second World Assembly on Aging held in Madrid, Spain. It was a privilege and humbling experience to be a presenter. Elder abuse was a key theme, with particular attention paid to violence against older women and institutional practices that subject older people to intimidation, aggression, inappropriate behavior-control methods, negligence, and lack of care. My presentation focused on the role of churches and faith communities in elder abuse awareness and efforts to eradicate elder abuse in our communities.

In many ways, elder abuse is more covert than spouse or child abuse. Older adults don’t often report the abuse.

In addition, the COVID pandemic made elder abuse worse by increasing the physical and social isolation of older adults. When the pandemic began, news media emphasized the high percentage of deaths (80%) occurring among the 65+ age cohort with many deaths occurring among nursing home residents. Many thought it mainly killed older people.

The clear implication was that if an illness merely decimated older people, we might be able to live with it. Unfortunately, the voices of ageism — persistent in our society — reflected the belief that these were simply old, sick people and “well, what do you expect?”

Often, elderly victims deny the occurrence of abuse or neglect out of fear, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. In some cases, older adults don’t know how or to whom to report abuse.

Elder financial abuse decimates incomes — both great and small. Often financial elder abuse crimes fail to acknowledge the harm that even small losses can have on older adults with limited resources. With rare exceptions, elderly victims of financial exploitation are not eligible for any victim compensation despite the fact that this form of abuse is among the most common.

Church leaders need to work collaboratively with other community professionals when suspecting that elder abuse has occurred within the faith community. The role of church leaders include:

  • Learning the warning signs of elder abuse such as:
    • Sudden changes in behavior or finances
    • Physical injuries, dehydration, or malnourishment
    • Extreme withdrawal, depression, or anxiety
    • Absence of basic care or necessities
    • Unsanitary living conditions
    • Personal items missing
    • Being kept isolated and away from others
  • Providing safe, compassionate, and confidential listening
  • Acknowledging the abuse and trauma that has taken place
  • Assuring the victim that she/he is not to blame
  • Creating a safe place for elderly victims to come forward for help and safety
  • Educating your congregation on violence, fraud, and abuse of elders
  • Breaking the silence about elder abuse via a sermon
  • Including fraud and scam alerts in your church newsletter and website
  • Identifying community resources and referrals

Reporting elder abuse is an ethical and moral response. Do not look away. In many states, including Tennessee, reporting elder abuse is mandatory and a legal responsibility.

If you would like for ENCORE Ministry staff to conduct a 1- or 2-hour elder abuse awareness workshop with your church leaders, contact Dr. Richard Gentzler at rgentzler@encoreministry.org

Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at rgentzler@encoreministry.org or call 615-400-0539.

* http://eldermistreatment.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/WEAAD21_Faith_ENG_508.pdf