Senior Solutions: Protecting the rights of aging Vermonters

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Senior Solutions is in the second year of its grant to Reduce Abuse in Later Life funded by the Department of Justice's Office of Violence Against Women. We and our multi-disciplinary partners have learned quite a lot. This grant serves a population of anyone 50 years or older. The pilot program has Windsor County as its focus but includes agencies across the state. During the past two years we have gone to New Grantee Orientation in Washington, D.C., taken our Law Enforcement Trainers of the Trainers (T.O.T.) to D.C., and continued the training of Victim Services and Prosecutorial partners. We have had the kick-off, and built important relationships with victim advocates and agencies across the state. Right now we are planning and practicing for the all day Law Enforcement Cross Training to be held at the Police Academy in Pittsford in December. We have had our Victim Services Team investigate and assist victims.

We learned what types of abuse older people suffer from. These include physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, and domestic abuse. It also includes neglect and financial exploitation. Abuse in later life takes on many different forms and often combines two or more types at the same time. The common thread is power and control wielded by the abuser. Taking control of assets and income is a very common technique. This undermines the victim's power. Vermont's attorney general's office prosecutes cases of financial exploitation. They are very involved in protecting the rights of our aging Vermonters.

Neglect is a more subtle form of abuse. This is a very sad, passive-aggressive form of controlling an older person. It usually is a trusted individual or family member that the older person depends on who takes advantage and does not perform the duty of care they have assumed. It generally also involves financial exploitation together with verbal abuse, threats, and tactics of isolation. These all keep the victim compliant and alone. In extreme cases, the victim dies from malnutrition, poor or no medical treatment, and general lack of care. When an older person dies, people don't generally question it. It doesn't attract a public outcry the way the death of a young person or child does. Who knows how many aging Vermonters have died after abusive "care"?

The victimizers rely on their powers of charm and control to keep these situations secret. They monitor and prevent phone calls. All public contact for the victim is strictly limited and controlled. Friends and family are discouraged from visiting the victim. It is never a "good time" to stop by or call. Financial transactions are handled by the abuser who claims the victim can't make those types of decisions because they are forgetful or that they now have power of attorney. You will find that they answer the door and almost always talk for the victim. They have a vast reservoir of excuses for any visible bruises. If confronted or brought to court, the abusers are masters of manipulation. They present themselves in the most sympathetic light.

Abusers have an excuse for every situation. They are sick, tired, overworked and dealing with a very difficult person. Never mind that most of us experience those same feelings without resorting to abusing those we are caring for. We hope that many more abusers will be made answerable for their unacceptable and often cruel behavior. Older Vermonters deserve to live with dignity. We want to shine a light on this complicated issue and encourage everyone to report suspected abuse to Adult Protective Services (APS) as soon as you see or hear it. APS can investigate and if it does not rise to the statutory standard that they are empowered to act on, they will pass it to another agency and we will all step in to protect the safety of our older friends, relatives and neighbors. We must respect the victim's rights since unless they are deemed incompetent, they may choose to live with the abuser. We can offer them the choice.

Joann Erenhouse, Esq., is the community relations director for Senior Solutions, the federally-designated Area Agency on Aging serving Southeastern Vermont since 1973. Senior Solutions provides information and assistance and administers a variety of programs for older adults and people with disabilities. Call 802-885-2669 or visit www.SeniorSolutionsVT.org.

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