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Address abuse, neglect of vulnerable elders

By BY DON LANGER
June 12, 2014 at 1:12 a.m.

Don Langer

Far too often, we learn about situations in which vulnerable and older adults are abused, neglected or exploited. While physical abuse is often more visible, other kinds of abuse - such as neglect and exploitation - can be more difficult to identify and address.

Recent data suggest that at least 10 percent - or 5 million - of older Americans experience abuse each year, and many of them experience it in multiple forms. One of these forms includes financial exploitation, which the Administration on Aging estimates costs the elderly $2.6 billion or more annually - funds that could have been used to pay for basic needs such as housing, food and medical care.

According to a 2012 National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities report, 156,200 incidents of abuse - including self-neglect; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; neglect by others as well as financial abuse - have been reported in Texas, compared to the more than 16,500 incidents on average recorded in other states. Abuse affects a person's health, well-being, safety and ability to live independently - which are some of the reasons why UnitedHealthcare is partnering with organizations and care providers across the country to generate awareness of these issues now and on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on Sunday.

UnitedHealthcare and community organizations such as NASUAD, the National Council on Aging, Elder Justice Coalition and others created a national advisory board to support consumers and advocates, address emerging trends or policy issues and create a pathway for broader awareness, understanding and education.

The advisory board is encouraging more than 100,000 care providers nationwide to participate in local WEAAD community events and is sharing network bulletins as well as spotlight features on its care provider site, uhconline.com.

We are also implementing clinical training initiatives that help care providers identify and report abuse, neglect and exploitation. Often, situations in which subtle kinds of abuse take place are the unintentional result of a lack of information or understanding of how the abuse occurs. For example, an adult with limited mobility could be placed and left in a position for a long period of time by a family member who does so without knowing the action will cause the individual harm. Or a vulnerable person is providing a source of income to a family and, as a result, the individual is exploited financially without his or her knowledge.

People may be vulnerable for other reasons - whether they are isolated or dependent on others, afraid to report an incident or are unaware the abuse has taken place.

Everyone, regardless of age, income or abilities, deserves a sense of ease and comfort as they face the health challenges that come with aging. As the number of baby boomers continues to rise - which the National Center on Elder Abuse estimates will grow to 20 percent by 2050 - more people will become dependent on caregivers, so a greater need for support and awareness around the subtle signs of abuse and neglect will become more critical. To sustain greater awareness and support, elder advocate organizations will need to continue creating linkages in the health system among patients, payers, care providers and communities.

It is up to all of us to provide the most vulnerable among us with a better sense of well-being, broader access to quality care in a safe environment and good quality of life. Nobody should be forced to live with abuse, neglect and exploitation.

For more information and resources on how to detect and prevent elder abuse, contact the National Center on Elder Abuse at 1-855-500-ELDR (3537) or visit ncea.aoa.gov/index.aspx.

Don Langer is president of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Texas.

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