Monday, November 12, 2007

Turn Up Volume on Silent Shame

A Wisconsin State Journal editorial

A caregiver gets a hug from an elderly resident she serves in Middleton.

Craig Schreiner -- State Journal

Often hidden or ignored, elder abuse is an enormous problem in Wisconsin that threatens to get worse as our state 's population grays.
Wisconsin State Journal reporter Dean Mosiman documented in stark and disturbing detail last week how vulnerable our oldest citizens can be to swindlers, control freaks, greedy relatives and friends -- even to their own pride and failing judgment.

The seven-day series "Elder Abuse: A Silent Shame, " which concluded Saturday, should energize Wisconsin to action. The solutions won 't be easy. But many do exist that won 't require huge amounts of money or an attack on privacy rights and other freedoms.

The best way to prevent and stop elder abuse is for more ordinary citizens -- all of us -- to keep watchful eyes on the elderly and isolated people we know. Potential victims of abuse and neglect might be related to us, might live down the street, belong to the same civic group or attend the same church.
They deserve our attention, friendship and concern. We owe it to them to report odd behavior, suspicious visitors, shoddy caregivers or injuries.

Health professionals are in key positions to better advocate for the elderly. Though they aren 't required to ask about or report many signs of problems, they can and should.
Similarly, bankers should report suspicious transactions to stem swindles. Bankers should encourage their aging customers to fill out Advanced Bank Orders, which empower banks to keep closer and more skeptical track of accounts.

Law enforcement responds quickly to complaints, and the courts have fined and thrown abusers behind bars. Yet law enforcement and the courts need more coordination and training to better recognize, coax and help the abused.
The same goes for caregivers, who earn low wages and aren 't required to have much training. The state at least recognizes this problem. It increased Medicaid reimbursements to nursing homes by 5 percent in the current budget. The state also is expanding an ombudsman program that puts volunteers into long-term care facilities. And Gov. Jim Doyle says he will consider higher standards for staffing and training.

That said, state officials couldn 't figure out how much money or personnel have been devoted annually to inspecting long-term care facilities in the last five years. The state also fails to provide simple ways for ordinary people to check on inspection reports and violations over the Internet.

The state does put court records online. Yet some misguided lawmakers are trying to block public access to this invaluable database. The ravages of elder abuse should convince them to drop their push for secrecy.
For its part, the federal government should allow abbreviated inspections of good-performing nursing homes so the state can concentrate its money and resources on troubled ones. The state already employs this concept with success in other areas of state government.

The frail and elderly also can do more to help themselves. They should never feel embarrassed if they are confused or unsure about managing their affairs or fending off pushy strangers. Self-neglect is the most common type of elderly abuse in Wisconsin, advocates say.

Dane County is probably doing more than any other county in the state to attack this silent scourge. But the county 's population over age 60 is projected to double from 2000 to 2030. Statewide, this population group is expected to increase 50 percent during that time.

The baby boomers will dramatically boost the elderly population -- yet they also have an opportunity to force change.

Everyone, in fact, has that power. We just need to pay more attention and engage the elderly and vulnerable in our lives. We need to ask for help when we need it.
We need to turn up the volume on this silent shame.
The Wisconsin State Journal and Dean Mosiman should be congratulated on this wonderful and eye-opening series on Elder Abuse. More public members should join forces to highlight and expose elder abuse cases. Together, we can push for changes and make politicians and governments take notice.

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