By Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, Jr.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15 serves as a call-to-action for individuals, churches, and communities to bring attention to the issue of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put older adults at risk for more than just a deadly disease. It has also increased their risk of experiencing physical, emotional, and financial abuse.

Social distancing and self-isolation have been good ideas to help flatten the curve of the coronavirus and to protect the health and well-being of older adults. However, older adults who are already socially isolated are more susceptible to fraud or abuse.

Vulnerable older adults can become invisible and ripe for abuse. It could be at the hands of someone else — such as a relative or scammer — or just as often, through self-neglect that no one notices.

Elder abuse, the mistreatment or harming of an older person, affects women and men regardless of their race, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, physical ability, or health status. It is an injustice that we all need to prevent and address. Elder abuse includes physical violence, threats, verbal abuse, financial exploitation, emotional abuse, neglect, and violation of an older person’s privacy or other basic rights.

Churches have long valued older adults, relied on their wisdom, and respected the depth and breadth of their life and faith experiences. However, this respect is not always reflected in families or the wider community. Countless older adults in Tennessee face inadequate support for their well-being and do not know where to turn for help.

If your church is like many congregations, you have a substantial number of older adult members. In fact, it is hard to imagine any United Methodist congregation in either the Tennessee Conference or the Memphis Conference without older adults!

Victims of elder abuse need and want the support of their faith communities and faith leaders. Many older adults are too afraid to speak up about missing money or being yelled at, controlled, or hit by someone else. It’s difficult to face the fact that a close relative or loved one is actually a conniving bully instead of a dutiful caregiver.

Faith is a valuable resource for older adults. It is an important aspect of their identity and community and an essential element in decision making and healing.

The faith community can be a place of refuge for elder abuse victims. It can be the place older adults turn to for help and learn that abuse is not their fault and they don’t deserve the abuse. Instead, victims learn that others care about them and that there are resources and service providers in the community that can help.

As a faith leader, you may be the first person to notice something amiss in the life of an older member because you know her so well. Or, you may be the first person the older member turns to for help because he has trust in your judgement. In many cases, the pastor or older adult ministry leader may be the only other person — except the abuser — in the victim’s life. Becoming knowledgeable about elder abuse and knowing the warning signs may save a life.

Look for signs of mistreatment. This includes physical and verbal abuse; neglect of personal hygiene, living conditions, or medical needs; or someone taking advantage of an older persons’ finances and property. Because some older adults are unable or afraid to talk about these kinds of situations, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on their care.

Contact the proper authorities when necessary. To find out where to report elder abuse, call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116. If the person is in immediate danger, call 911 or the local police. In Tennessee it is mandatory to report elder abuse.

Take precautions to help prevent elder abuse. Educate yourself and your congregation about elder abuse. Create a safe place for older adults by making your church facilities accessible and a place where elderly victims can come for help. Give a sermon and prepare newsletter articles that highlight abuse in vulnerable populations.

Provide resources to support older adults and their caregivers. These include meal delivery, adult day care, transportation, minor home maintenance and repair, elder fraud and scam alerts, and love offerings.

Establish a Friendly Visitor Ministry or Stephen Ministry in your church where members of your congregation regularly visit homebound, elderly, and nursing home members. Start a ministry where trusted visitors can be with older members when service providers are be in their homes. If a family member is the caregiver for an older person, encourage the caregiver in getting respite, and provide resources, information, and support.

Start a Community Faith Nursing Ministry (Parish Nurse Ministry) in which a knowledgeable and professional health care worker can help educate the congregation as well as observe the needs of homebound and elderly members.

Provide safe, compassionate, and confidential listening. It takes so much energy, strength, and courage to speak up. When a victim of elder abuse is ready to speak, church leaders have to listen. Provide assurance that the victim is not to blame in addition to providing resource information and community referrals.

We need to be proactive in a culture that is in denial of aging, which frequently devalues older people and allows rampant inequality, abuse, and neglect. We need to heed the words of the Psalmist, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age, do not forsake me when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9).

If we are fortunate enough to live a long life, we will all need the love and care of others. We need to realize our interdependence on each other at every age.

I pray your congregation will take time to recognize World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15 or anytime during the month of June. For additional information on how you and your congregation can observe World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, click here.