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Aging and alone: organizations combat elder abuse in the oldest state

May 9, 2018

With a median age of 44.5 years, Maine is the oldest state in the United States. An aging population presents a variety of challenges. Brunswick itself has three senior housing facilities, one of which is Mid Coast Senior Health Center. Mid Coast Senior Health is home for four different types of senior living communities—varying by level of care needed—and has around 100 residents.

“What we want to support through Mid Coast Parkview Health is healthy aging and living well and being healthy for as long as you can be,” said Kim Watson, administrator of Mid Coast Senior Health Center. “We need to think more as a community about living life fully recognizing that life has meaning and purpose all the way through.”

An issue that often lacks attention is that of elder abuse. The problem is notoriously underreported and difficult to measure, but a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that one in 10 elders experienced abuse, including physical, psychological, verbal or sexual abuse, financial exploitation or neglect.

The Elder Abuse Institute of Maine focuses uniquely on combating adult and elder abuse. Its office is tucked on the third floor of the Fort Andross.

The organization—created with the help of a federal grant in 2009—focuses on transitional housing for elders who have been abused and also has a large education and outreach component.

“Rather than looking at that silver tsunami, like, ‘This is an awful issue,’ we should be looking at it like there’s a ton of older people in the state who bring tons of experience,” said Patricia Kimball, the executive director of the institute. “What if we activated that population so it’s about workforce development and changing workforce policy so that older people can be supported in the workplace.”

While Watson recognizes the vast amount of potential resources offered to elders, many of them are limited to those with adequate financial means.

“Right now, we have plenty of options for people, however, a lot of those options are for people who can afford it and we are more restricted in what we have to offer for those who can limited financial means,” said Watson.

“A lot of our work is raising awareness about elder abuse in general. ‘What are the signs and symptoms?’ If you know somebody that might be experiencing that, how can you reach out, what kind of support services are available?” said Kimball.

Started in 1994, the Elder Abuse Institute registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2001. It has helped over 350 people throughout its years.

“There is definitely an underreported and underrecognized public health and social justice issue that has long gone unrecognized,” said Kimball. “We hope that things are changing and our belief is that a large part of that is living in an ageist society and how we think about older people.”

Erin Salvo, the associate director of Adult Protective Services (APS)—a governmental organization that works to combat adult abuse—oversees a unit charged with investigating calls of potential abuse, neglect and exploitation for incapacitated and/or dependent adults.

APS runs a 24-hour intake line and receives, on average, around 1,200 calls a month. From the calls they receive, 600-800 of those go to the district office to be investigated.

“The number of calls a month we are getting to APS is growing just about every month,” said Salvo. “I’d like to think that some of that isn’t just that more people are being abused or that we could have more and more elderly people in Maine, but we also try to do a lot of public education and we’ll go out and speak to groups, nursing facility staff or law enforcement.”

Isolation can be a common sentiment among elders and Watson acknowledges that living in an senior living home—where activities and social events are abundant—provides many with a sense of community.

“We know that part of our mental health is our connection with other people, and so it’s not always the best thing for everyone to live by themselves in their own homes until the end of their lives.” said Watson. “A lot of people thrive in their community where there’s a lot of social connection.”

Kimball also noted the benefits of building resilient communities both elders and young people can live in.

“If we build stronger communities and support people then we reduce isolation, more people will be able to watch for their neighbor and more,” said Kimball. “The other thing is, when you build communities for young people and when you build communities for older people, you are building communities for everyone, not an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. You are building communities everybody can live and thrive in.”

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