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By Colleen Quinn and Mike Deehan


STATE HOUSE — A group of lawmakers and advocates who work with the elderly think a public awareness campaign about elder abuse will help curb the growing problem, and made several recommendations to address the issue in a report released Thursday.

The Elder Protective Services Commission, created by state law in August 2012 to study and find ways to prevent elder abuse, suggests a campaign similar to awareness efforts about domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse would elevate the public’s attention to the issue.

“A public awareness campaign would address some of the myths that surround elder abuse including the misperception that it is just a result of caregiver stress,” the commission stated in the 32-page report. “It means confronting the idea that families are capable of exploitation and that elder abuse might be occurring within the family, a notion that is difficult to accept.”

In Massachusetts, 22 elder protective service agencies are charged with addressing cases of physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation of elders. In fiscal year 2013, the agencies received 21,300 reports, with 6,598 confirmed cases of abuse. The figure represents a 9 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report.

Elder abuse is defined as intentional actions by a caregiver or another trusted person that create a serious risk or harm to an elderly person, including failing to satisfy their basic needs. Women are at a higher risk for abuse than men, and the older a person gets the more likely they are to be abused, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.

In the United States, more than 40 million people are 65 or older, making up 13 percent of the population. Yet, signs of elder abuse may be missed by people who work with seniors because of a lack of training to detect abuse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse website.

An overwhelming number of cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation go undetected and untreated each year. One study estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse ever come to the attention of authorities, according to the national center.

The commission, chaired by Rep. James O’Day (D-West Boylston) and Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), looked at ways to improve caseworkers’ ability to investigate and respond to financial exploitation cases; develop training and coordination for protective service workers on a statewide basis; and respond to health and safety issue for abuse victims. The group also focused on prevention.

Greater awareness about elder abuse would encourage physicians to make referrals for seniors to programs that increase social support, mental health services, and protective services when there is evidence of abuse, according to the report. Annual physician visits are a chance to identify people at high risk for elder abuse, the commission says.

The commission also stressed a need to boost the availability of mental health services. An estimated 20 percent of people 55 years or older experience mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders or severe cognitive impairment, according to the report.

“In recent years, monies for addressing mental health issues in the aging population have been eroding. There are currently some exemplary mental health programs throughout the Commonwealth but they are few and far between with uncertain funding,” the report stated.

Financial exploitation of elders is a growing problem nationwide, costing seniors roughly $2.6 billion a year, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute study conducted in 2009. Money lost through fraud is rarely ever regained, according to the commission.

“As people become more adept at scamming seniors, we need to find ways to become more adept at preventing those scams,” O’Day told the News Service. “We’ve got to be a little more helpful for our seniors as it comes to protecting their nest egg, protecting their financial stability or for those who don’t have a lot of stability making sure we protect what little they do have left.”

A typical social worker has difficulty investigating cases of financial fraud because they lack a background in financial products or law. Caseworkers need experts to assist them in understanding financial products and account statements, according to the commission.

One thing that would help is to educate the public, particularly seniors, about potential financial fraud, the commission recommended.

The commission also recommended creating a financial abuse specialist team, comprised of CPA’s and financial planners, banks and credit unions, attorneys who work in probate law, district attorneys and other law enforcement officials. The Financial Abuse Specialist Team, dubbed “FAST” would work regularly with social workers.

The commission suggests the governor and the Legislature work together to determine funding levels for Elder Protective Services to implement some of the recommendations from the report.

O’Day said the report suggests funding for core training for protective service providers that was cut in 2009 should be restored and legislation laying out a plan could surface in the Elder Affairs Committee.

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