(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download at: Bifocal, Vol. 38, Issue 1.)
One in 23. That’s the number of cases of elder abuse that are reported to the authorities, according to a 2011 study shared on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. And the statistic makes clear that too many incidents of elder abuse remain unaddressed, leading organizers of the 2016 National Aging and Law Conference to theme their event: “Justice for elders.”
The conference took place on Oct. 27-28 in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and was presented by several American Bar Association entities, including the Commission on Law and Aging; Commission on Homelessness and Poverty; Coordinating Committee on Veterans Benefits and Services; Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice; Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice; Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law, Senior Lawyers Division; General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division; and Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.
One of the more than 30 offered workshops and plenary sessions featured Edwin Walker, acting assistant secretary for aging and acting administrator of the Administration for Community Living in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Andy Mao, coordinator of the Elder Justice Initiative at the U.S. Department of Justice.
During the session “Justice for Elders Plenary,” Walker and Mao discussed emerging trends in elder justice and initiatives at the federal, state and local level to prevent and mitigate the abuse of older Americans. Programs under the auspices of the ACL and DOJ that empower elders to maintain self-determination and avoid falling prey to abuse or exploitation were detailed. Attendees were instructed on connecting to evidence-based programs in their communities, while the efforts of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council to enhance interagency coordination were highlighted.
Prior to federal service, Walker served as director of the Missouri Division of Aging, responsible for administering a comprehensive set of human service programs for older persons and adults with disabilities. The programs of the ACL, which he now administers, work collaboratively to enhance access to health care and long-term services and supports, while also promoting inclusive community living policies.
Among the resources of Mao’s Elder Justice Initiative is the DOJ Elder Justice Website. Information on the site includes how to report elder abuse and financial exploitation in all 50 states and territories, databases containing sample pleadings and statutes, and, for researchers, thousands of elder abuse and financial exploitation articles and reviews.
Previously, Mao was part of the team that led the federal government's health care fraud case against GlaxoSmithKline, in which the pharmaceutical company agreed in 2012 to plead guilty and pay $3 billion related to the illegal promotion of certain drugs and other practices. Mao said he believes that providing greater education to law enforcement personnel, ombudsmen and the public on signs of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation can make a significant difference in preventing such crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
“The Department of Justice has taken a leadership role on ending international fraud targeting seniors,” Mao said. He advocated that what is needed is a “great seamless collaborative effort to address elder justice,” and that through the work of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, “DOJ has taken to heart the need for collaboration; collaborative networks are the most effective way to address abuse.”
Walker emphasized the importance of the Older Americans Act and said that data on its effectiveness is needed to get the law reauthorized. “The Older Americans Act was reauthorized for three years; come spring it will be time to provide input for the next Older Americans Act reauthorization,” he said. “In preparing for reauthorization, we are constantly asking, ‘Where is the evidence? Where is the data?’”
Research shared at the conference reveal the uphill battle faced by advocates against abuse of older Americans. Elder abuse affects about 10% of people age 60 and over, and close to 50% of those with dementia. Without proper training, professionals working with older Americans often miss signs of abuse. Prosecutions in such cases are rare.
Presenter Ben Belton of the Social Security Administration challenged those in power to address unmet needs, quoting from Hubert Humphrey’s last speech: ". . . The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
Planning has begun for the 2017 National Aging and Law Conference to be held October 26-27 at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Silver Spring, Md. Check the website of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging for updates: http://ambar.org/NALC.