A man in his early 70s bears a latticework of scars on his arms. Some are old and others newer: the woman he has lived with for 20 years, on whom he depends for shelter, cuts him regularly. A woman in her 60s seeks a doctor when her blood pressure shoots up from an unusual cause: she has overheard her husband talking on the phone, threatening to kill her. Another woman, over 70 years old, loses her money in the stock market and is forced to move in with her son. Before long, he starts beating her.
“It’s scary, extremely scary,” said Jeri Lee, director of case management services at Walk the Walk, a Long Island City-based senior services organization. She had just finished describing the aforementioned victims, three of her most recent cases of eldÇr abuse. Lee is working to secure their safety, but it isn’t easy. “Shelters generally take women with young children,” she explained. As a result, there are few places where her clients can turn.
Over the past few decades, non-profit organizations have made great strides in working with victims of physical and mental abuse, helping them trade fear and shame for dignity. Shelters, toll-free hotlines, and counselors abound these days, but experts on abuse suggest that such general resources do not meet the needs of everyone. They worry that recourse remains unavailable for a large demographic: the elderly.
According to estimates from the National Center on Elder Abuse, reported cases of abuse against the elderly grew by 150 percent nationwide between 1986 and 2001. Types of mistreatment range from physical and psychological abuse to financial exploitation, abandonment, and neglect.
Meanwhile, the elderly population is booming. The United States Census Bureau predicts that, in less than three decades from now, the number of Americans over age 65 will nearly triple, making seniors 20 percent of the total population, up from 12.3 percent in 1990. Elder abuse is only expected to become a larger problem in the future.
But for the people struggling with it now, the numbers are already overwhelming, and very close to home. Cindy Suarez, deputy chief of the special victims’ bureau for the Queens District Attorney, estimates that her department alone takes in nearly 50 cases of elder abuse every month.
“We found a need to concentrate and have a project on these cases because they do have special needs,” Suarez said. As part of the ten-year-old Elder Abuse Project, she and other assistant district attorneys partner with police to collect statements from offenders. They also dispatch a counselor to visit victims and help with other services, whether arranging referrals for hearing aids and glasses, lending a wheelchair, or obtaining service from Meals on Wheels.
“We meet them because they’re crime victims and then discover other needs,” explained Suarez. “Rather than turn our backs on these daily needs of the elderly, we need to fill in that gap.” She knows that the “gap” is what often prevents older adults from seeking recourse against an abuser. If a victim relies on an abuser for food or shelter, escape can feel impossible.
Nationally, legislators are starting to learn what Suarez has known for a long time. The Elder Justice Act, introduced by Senator John Breaux (D-La.) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.) last February, is currently pending in Congress. If passed, it would establish a federal Office of Elder Justice, and also support “safe havens” where seniors can escape violence and other forms of abuse.
But concerned members of the Queens community don’t plan to wait for federal legislation to create a haven of their own. At Walk the Walk, founder Reverend Coleman Costello has long dreamed of a shelter where abused older adults can find respite from home, where most abuse occurs. Now a 20-bed shelter, Mary’s House, is scheduled to open at the end of the year. Offering temporary housing, it will broaden the range of services that Walk the Walk has made available to seniors since the early 1990s.
“Father Costello realized that there was a more serious problem,” explained Al Wassler, chief operating officer of Walk the Walk. “In certain situations you need to remove the person from home. Primarily, the kind of abuse we see is from other family members.”
Funding for the shelter has already come from various tiers of local and national government, including the New York City Department for the Aging, the New York State Office for the Aging, the New York State Crime Victims Board and, federally, the Administration on Aging. At this point, construction has been completed and the parking lot has been paved. Some details remain: ordering office equipment, hanging special quilts made by a team of local women, and hiring staff, including counselors, a part-time nutritionist, and a cook.
“We have to be ready to serve everyone from Sunni Muslims to Irish Catholics,” Wassler said warmly. In addition to providing food, counseling, and shelter, Mary’s House will offer a recreational therapist who can organize theater excursions, baseball games, and other cultural forays. Wassler says that the Walk the Walk staff wants to see abuse victims “socialize, get some joy back in their lives.”
Mary’s House will open in Queens but, in a practice common among battered women’s shelters, its address will remain confidential to protect the abused. Once it opens, Mary’s House will be funded by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, the only state division currently funding shelters.
While Wassler calls elder abuse “America’s dirty little secret,” he hopes to see fewer and fewer victims keeping it to themselves. He stressed that Walk the Walk does what its name implies: more than just talk the talk.
“Anybody over 60 who feels they’re being abused in any way, shape or fashion should give us a call,” he concluded. Walk the Walk can be reached at 718-433-0800.