By Stephanie Wheeler
Alaska Long-Term Care Ombudsman 

A call to awareness and action on elder abuse


May 1, 2022 | View PDF

The mission of the Alaska Long-Term Care Ombudsman program is to provide resident-centered advocacy designed to protect the rights, health, safety and welfare of Alaskans living in long-term care facilities. In 2021, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program investigated nearly 300 complaints in long term care settings. One of the top five complaints identified in long-term care settings was abuse, neglect and exploitation of residents. The COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptionally challenging to seniors, many who were socially isolated from their loved ones and friends, possibly making abuse and neglect more likely to occur.

Elder abuse is a largely hidden and growing problem in the United States. It is defined by law as “an act or omission, which results in a serious physical or emotional injury to an elderly person or financial exploitation of an elderly person; or the failure, inability or resistance of an elderly person to provide for himself or herself one or more of the necessities essential for physical and emotional well-being, without which the elderly person would be unable to safely remain in the community.”  Elder abuse can include physical, sexual, emotional, neglect and financial exploitation.

Every year an estimated 1 in 10 older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation. And that’s only part of the picture: Experts believe that elder abuse is significantly under-reported, in part because so many of our communities lack the social supports that would make it easier for those who experience abuse to report it. Research suggests that as few as 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse come to the attention of authorities. In addition to being a clear violation of the American commitment to justice for all, elder abuse is an issue with many consequences for our society. Its effects on our communities range from public health to economic issues.

A call to action

June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Month. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) is June 15 and was launched in 2006 by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations in an effort to unite communities around the world in raising awareness about elder abuse.

WEAAD serves as a call-to-action for our communities to raise awareness about abuse, neglect and exploitation of elders, and reaffirm our country’s commitment to the principle of justice for all. When we come together, we can prevent elder abuse from happening. We can put support services in place, and direct community resources toward addressing elder abuse. Our country must reaffirm our commitment to justice and create a sturdy structure of support that will benefit us all as we get older.

While Elder Abuse is widespread, the good news is that we can prevent and address the issue of elder abuse. There are many ways to strengthen our social supports through policies, services and programs that keep us integrated in our communities as we age.

We can design and equip community centers to work as intergenerational spaces that allow older people to build relationships and participate in the work, play, and life of our neighborhoods.

We can think about the role of transportation in reducing social isolation and adjust systems so that we can all continue to move throughout our communities as we age.

We can figure out new and better ways to arrange and coordinate the teams, agencies and programs that work specifically with older people.

We can develop programs to educate families and professionals who work with older adults to understand the importance of preventing isolation, how to spot the warning signs of abuse and what to do to address abuse or neglect.

By doing all that we can to strengthen the social support structure, we can reduce social isolation, protect communities and families against elder abuse and build a nation that lives up to our promise of justice for all. In our culture, elders should be revered —and rightfully so. Their experiences, memories and perspective on life are valued for the lessons that younger folks can learn. And if older people aren’t encouraged to pass along the skills and wisdom they have accumulated during their lives, then the culture as a whole suffers. We owe it to older generations to ensure that their so-called golden years are not tarnished by abuse or neglect.

It’s so easy to see bad things and not say anything—whether that’s senior abuse or a mugging on the street. But Elder Abuse Awareness month can remind us just how important it is to look after, and look out for, our fellow human beings. It reminds us to exercise compassion daily, and care about supporting others who may need our assistance.

If you suspect abuse of any kind for elders or others, please contact your local authorities. You may also contact the following agencies:

The Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman identifies, investigates and resolves complaints relating to older Alaskans (age 60 and older) who reside in long term care facilities. 1-800-730-6393

The Office of Elder Fraud and Assistance is charged with addressing all forms of financial exploitation and coordinating related services for the elder population of the state of Alaska. Age and financial criteria apply. 907-334-5954

State of Alaska, Division of Senior and Disability Services – Adult Protective Services is charged with helping to prevent harm from occurring to vulnerable adults. To report suspected abuse of a vulnerable adult, call 1-800-478-9996 (in state only) or 907-269-3666.

Stephanie Wheeler is the Alaska Long-Term Care Ombudsman.


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