For Wendy Hillman, manager of the Adult Protective Services at Multnomah County, Elder Abuse Awareness Day is personal.
With anger in her voice, she can recall her own experiences with elder abuse. For the past several years, her brother’s wife, an elderly woman, has experienced the debilitating effects of living with a terminal illness. Hillman’s brother, busy during the day with a job, hired a caregiver to provide assistance for his ailing wife.
It was only when Hillman visited the home recently to help out that she noticed something wasn’t right. The caregiver played T.V. loudly when her sister-in-law slept, instead of providing additional care, and she filled out her own checks for hours she didn’t work. The final straw came when Hillman discovered the caregiver used the family’s Amazon account for her own purchases.
“I said, ‘What’s going on here?” recalled Hillman. “(My brother) said ‘It’s just too much work for me to find another caregiver.’”
Hillman continued: “That’s the barrier our committee needs to break down.”
Hillman and her family are not alone. According to a statistic read by Commissioner Judy Shiprack at Thursday’s board meeting, an estimated 5,000,000 elders in the United States are affected by elder abuse and mistreatment annually. That’s why the Board of County Commissioners took the time to proclaim June 23 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day in Multnomah County during their weekly meeting.
“Seniors are such valuable members of this community,” said Shiprack, who brought forward the Elder Abuse Awareness Day proclamation.“They represent decades of accumulated knowledge and wisdom... And yet seniors do get caught in relationships that are characterized by abuse.”
Elder abuse can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s identity theft or financial exploitation. Sometimes it’s physical violence or neglect.
But as deputy DA Tara Gardner noted during Thursday’s presentation, elders are targeted by those they trust the most.
“What is so very sad about these cases is that the perpetrators are often family members, fiduciaries, caregivers, neighbors, and friends,” said Gardner, who specializes in the prosecution of financial elder abuse.“They are the people that our elders rely upon to meet their own daily needs.”
In response to its growing awareness, the county has developed a number of initiatives that work to decrease elder abuse locally. They include the Gatekeeper Program, which identifies at-risk elders in the community, and the Public Guardian Program, which implements court-issued assistance to elders and those with mental disabilities.
Thursday’s proclamation also highlighted upcoming projects designed to address the problem. In the works is the establishment of a forensics center that will serve as a community space for seniors struggling with abuse and their family and friends who wish to step in and help.
The goal is to create a place for medical professionals and law enforcement specialists to execute investigations and provide resources and services for elders experiencing abuse.
“This is a huge and very serious problem,” said Commissioner Loretta Smith. “Getting more information...through a forensic center would be great.”
As Thursday’s meeting came to a close, Chair Deborah Kafoury noted the prevalence of elder abuse.
“Friends of mine are experiencing this with other members of their family taking advantage of their elderly parents and grandparents,” she shared. “And just talking about it between ourselves makes us realize how common it is, which is really scary.”
Kafoury continued: “I’m excited that we can that we can not just talk about what we could do next but we are really putting our values at play.”