Hearing Addresses Elder Abuse

Bonnie BrandlSocial worker Bonnie Brandl testified at the hearing.

A recent hearing by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging brought the issue of elder abuse into the national spotlight.

Bonnie Brandl, who has an MSW and is director of the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, testified at the March hearing that the federal response to elder abuse is woefully inadequate.

“As the population ages, local professionals on the frontlines are struggling to meet the growing demand for intervention and victim services,” she testified. “To prevent further harm to this unique and growing population, we should be scaling up current responses and leveraging existing resources and expertise to develop cost-effective prevention strategies.”

The hearing garnered national media attention thanks in part to live testimony by actor Mickey Rooney, who informed the committee that he has experienced elder abuse. He said a trusted family member exploited him financially.

“You can be in control of your life one minute and in the next minute you have absolutely no control,” Rooney said of his personal experience. He added that he eventually became stripped of the ability to make even the most basic life decisions.

Rooney said that for years he remained silent about the issue out of shame and fear that others would not believe his claims.

Brandl said the national media attention devoted to Rooney’s testimony brought the issue a much-needed shot in the arm. “To have a celebrity with such notability as Mickey Rooney testify helped bring attention to elder abuse issues,” she said.

She pointed out that elder abuse goes vastly underreported because, like Rooney, many victims experience deep shame and fear from such mistreatment.

While the increased attention to the issue is a healthy start, “we have a long way to go,” Brandl said.

At the hearing, senators were given a Government Accountability Office report on elder abuse that cited a 2009 study showing 14.1 percent of non-institutionalized older adults had experienced physical, psychological or sexual abuse, neglect or financial exploitation in the past year.

The GAO report recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services provide guidance to Adult Protective Service programs. It also suggested that HHS work with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to implement a nationwide APS data system.

Brandl said she supports these suggestions because no federal office currently addresses elder abuse specifically. Such an office could greatly benefit the elderly population by issuing best practice guidelines, for example. The GAO report noted that the Elder Justice Act, which NASW supported, was enacted in 2010. It authorizes grants to states for their APS programs and provides a vehicle for establishing and implementing national priorities in this area, but it does not address national elder abuse incidence studies.

Though the HHS and Justice Department budgets for fiscal year 2009 included $11.9 million in grants for elder justice activities, there is still a need for resolving elder abuse cases and standardizing the information reported, the GAO report stated.

Brandl said there are ways to improve services with existing resources, such as leveraging staff from existing community domestic violence programs and aging networks to address elder abuse cases.

In the meantime, Brandl urged social workers to support efforts that call for increased federal attention to address elder abuse.

“We will see more and more of these cases as the population ages,” she said.

Chris Herman, NASW senior practice associate, attended the Senate hearing. She said speakers expressed a consensus that more resources should be devoted to support national data collection on elder abuse.

“Both the GAO report and Mickey Rooney’s testimony brought national attention to this important issue,” Herman said. “This hearing also highlighted the need for increased funding of programs — many of them led by social workers — that help older adults, such as APS and long-term care ombudsmen.”