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Elder abuse often hidden but a shocking societal problem

Three reported cases of elder abuse have come to light in recent weeks, in which a grandchild allegedly was involved in severely beating, poisoning or killing a grandparent with whom he or she was living.

That is astounding to me. Unfortunately, cases like those might not be all that uncommon.

"I suppose it has been around forever," said Steve Fisher, manager of the Adult Safety Branch of the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services. "But we'd like to think it is shocking and deviates from the norm we are accustomed to."

However, "we often see this as a familial problem," he continued. "A live-in adult child or grandchild exploiting or abusing an elderly parent or grandparent. It's a hidden problem."

Although he could not address the more recent criminal cases, Fisher said he's seen other adult children or grandchildren who, because of a lack of money or employment, move in with the elderly while cooking and cleaning for them. But, he said, "there is that gene that causes them to turn on the victim and exploit the situation."

Health and Family Serv ices received 45,048 reports of adult abuse in fiscal year 2007. Of that number, 9,660 were for people 60 or older. That was nearly a 3 percent increase over the previous period.

Criminal charges were filed in 366 of those cases in 2007, an increase of more than 14 percent. Part of that increase was because of to improved vigilance by law enforcement agencies.

The abuse is not always easy to identify, Fisher said. Sometimes the victims are unaware of the abuse, particularly in the case of financial exploitation, or they might be too afraid to report it. Only one in 14 cases of abuse is reported to Protective Services or the police. Only one fourth of financial exploitation cases are reported.

Or victims may allow it to happen because it is perpetrated by a beloved family member. "They just look the other way," Fisher said.

Nationally, elder abuse occurs in domestic situations primarily with adult children, spouses or other relatives making up more than 65 percent of the abusers. Most serve as caregivers.

As the elderly grow older, their chances of being abused increase as well. While nearly 21 percent of the elderly who are abused were in their 60s, nearly 43 percent were 80 and older.

"The celebrated cases are an indication of a much larger problem that is under-reported or unknown," Fisher said. "Our response to it should be swift and definitive. It is incumbent upon us to respond to this in a swift manner and to try to understand the dynamics of what's going here."

Contributing factors that might lead to elder abuse could be a lack of education, drug abuse or an unhealthy relationship, he said.

We, as neighbors, friends and family members, need to know some of the signs of elder abuse and neglect, and then report it.

If you suspect abuse, watch the caregiver carefully. Are they threatening, harassing or demeaning? Does the victim seem isolated from other family members or friends?

If you suspect neglect, is the caregiver indifferent or unwilling to help? Do the reasons for the elderly's illness or injuries seem to change or differ between the caregiver and the victim?

Call 1-800-752-6200 to report abuse anonymously, or call your local police or sheriff's department if the danger is immediate. Legally, you are required to do that.

"It is a horrific act and there is a criminal element involved," Fisher said. "I don't know if we will ever get to bottom of why anyone turns on any human being, especially a loved one."

For more signs of abuse or neglect, go to