Board proclaims June 15 “Elder Abuse Awareness Day” after abuse reports fall during pandemic

June 15, 2021

We help protect seniors (older people), and people with disabilities from abuse and neglect. To report a case of abuse or neglect, call 503-988-4450. To learn more, visit Adult Protective Services.

The Board of County Commissioners proclaimed Tuesday, June 15 “Elder Abuse Awareness Day” in Multnomah County, joining communities around the world in promoting a better understanding of abuse and neglect of older adults. 

In a board meeting on Thursday, June 10, experts with Aging, Disability & Veterans Services and Meals on Wheels explained how the past year presented unique challenges in identifying and addressing cases of elder abuse and neglect. 

Multnomah County’s Adult Protective Services program is a lifeline for older adults experiencing abuse and neglect. Through its network of community partners, Adult Protective Service makes contact with victims, investigates cases, and intervenes when appropriate. But in the past year, their work has taken on a new challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic really did feel like a worst-case scenario for older adults, taking the risks that isolation and disconnection play in regards to the vulnerability of our elders and amplifying that to a whole new level,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. 

Few have been hit harder by the pandemic than older adults. Over the past year, the pandemic has driven isolation, loneliness and fear. Less in-person contact also meant cases of abuse and neglect went underreported in 2020. 

Brian Hughes, the program manager for Adult Protective Services, said reports decreased in the last year as people stayed home to reduce the spread of the virus. That made it harder for Adult Protective Services to be aware of issues related to abuse, neglect and self neglect.

“Our initial encouragement to older adults to stay safe by staying home and maintaining physical distance was an important step in avoiding exposure to the virus,” Hughes said.  “However, this decrease in social connections and interaction with friends, family and paid support also resulted in social isolation and loneliness for some folks. This overall reduction in in-person contact also resulted in fewer reports to adult protective services offices statewide and Multnomah County in 2020.”

For providers like Meals on Wheels, the pandemic presented new challenges in keeping older adults engaged. Multnomah County partners with Meals on Wheels to foster connection with seniors and link them to services. The program serves 1.4 million meals each year in Multnomah and Clark County. 

“We’ve always served more than a meal,” said Jessica Morris, the Chief Strategy Officer for Meals on Wheels. “This is so important for older adults whose family and friends passed away. especially older adults unseen and unheard. We have always seen them and always heard them.”

Before the pandemic, Meals on Wheels operated a dining center and a daily meal service. Because of their frequent contact with elders, staff are often quick to notice signs of cognitive decline, abuse and neglect.  But COVID-19 forced Meals on Wheels to close its dining hall and shift to a weekly meal delivery. 

Meals on Wheels got creative in order to fill the gap. In April 2020, they stood up a phone line to connect with program participants. To date, 620 volunteers have made more than 20,000 phone calls to 1,958 adults. In one case, volunteers discovered a woman’s daughter had been breaking into her home and stealing from her. Meals on Wheels filed an Adult Protective Services report. 

“Through these calls, our participants are able to connect with others, feel a sense of trust and community and feel less isolated for a time,” Morris said. “These calls also keep people safe,” 

As communities begin to emerge from the pandemic, those that serve older adults are looking forward to reconnecting. With more in-person interactions, there are more opportunities to respond to cases of abuse and neglect. Adult Protective Services has seen more reports in the last three months compared to any point in the last year. The program has assigned 1,254 cases in 2021--a 15 percent increase compared to the same period last year. 

Multnomah County anticipates the number of intakes to continue increasing over the next year, with the possibility of previously unreported crimes and concerns of abuse, neglect and self-neglect. 

“It feels as though we’re at the end of the pandemic and yet, I think that we all know that in terms of the ripple effect, we’re not,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “We need to continue to be vigilant. We need to continue to provide these supportive services and to try to give our elders the support they deserve.”