Preventing Elder Abuse

REACH leads a federally-funded team collaborating to protect elders from abuse in the City of Waltham. The grant, awarded under the Violence Against Women Act, supported the formation of a group called WAALL (Waltham Against Abuse in Later Life) which includes REACH, Springwell Adult Protective Services, the Waltham Police Department, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, and the Dual Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

While the term ‘elder abuse’ may bring to mind images of exploitive institutional caretakers, surveys of elders find that they are more likely to be abused by a family member. Elder abuse by a relative is less likely to be prosecuted than abuse involving a stranger or an institution. In many cases, elders abused by a relative do not wish to have their abuser prosecuted. This may be because they do not want him or her to face criminal charges, or they fear criminal consequences will trigger retribution by someone they continue to depend on for financial support, physical caretaking, or companionship. Sometimes, it is the abuser who depends on the victim for financial support. Many cases of elder abuse by a relative involve elements of financial exploitation. Even if the elder recognizes this, he/she may still feel responsible for providing ongoing financial assistance and housing for the relative. Depending on their current health conditions, elders may be isolated in their home, relying on caretakers who are often family members. Reaching them requires a network of individuals who understand the complexities while knowing how to help the victim understand their options. It may also require identifying new resources and options.

With health care models changing and efforts being made to ensure that individuals can remain at home, the number of elders at risk for abuse will likely increase. Thirty percent of Waltham’s population is aged 50 and older, a number that will continue to increase as the Baby Boomer generation ages. We began the project by distributing surveys to elders and to service providers in the community. This process, called a “community needs assessment,” was intended to take stock of existing resources in the city and to hear from those most directly affected where they saw gaps in services and what concerns they had. We then worked with our collaborative partners to develop a Coordinated Community Response (CCR) Team to handle cases of elder abuse in Waltham. Similar to the High Risk Team model, this would be a group of law enforcement, service providers, the courts and other community members who may come in contact with elderly residents. This team meets regularly to discuss cases that come across their desks, and to make sure that victims do not slip through the cracks. Members of the CCR are also engage in a review of their own policies and protocols to make sure they are helping to identify, investigate, and prosecute cases of elder abuse.