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Congress begins to tackle problem of elder abuse

Abuse of elders, a national problem some say is increasing, is beginning to get some federal attention. Congress is taking the first steps toward documenting the issue and encouraging states to better respond to it.

"The problem of elder abuse is a national one and it is on the increase," says Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida.

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Mr. Pepper, chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, says estimates of the number of elderly who are seriously mistreated each year range from 500, 000 to 2.5 million.

A staff spokesman says the lower figure represents physical abuse, while the higher estimate includes neglect and exploitation.

To address this problem, Mr. Pepper and Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D) of Ohio have introduced legislation to set up a National Center on Adult Abuse to research the problem and provide financial aid to states meeting certain criteria to help them fight elder abuse.

State officials contacted by the Monitor generally welcome the idea of state aid. But some expressed concerns that privacy rights of the elderly not be ignored in efforts to help them.

Passage of the legislation in this session of Congress will be difficult, says a senior staff official of the select committee. Not only is Congress in a budget-cutting mood, but public awareness of elder abuse is still limited, this official says. If necessary, the bill will be reintroduced next session, he predicts.

Says Representative Pepper, "The types of abuse inflicted on the elderly include physical -- beating, withholding medication or food, or excessive use of medication or alcohol to make an older person more manageable; psychological -- verbal assault and threats or provoking fear and isolation; material or financial -- theft of money, valuables, or other property; violations of rights -- forcing elders out of their homes or tricking them into nursing homes against their will."

At the congressional hearing June 11, witnesses, including several elderly victims of abuse, gave examples of mistreatment. These included a Massachusetts grandmother beaten by her daughter and financial exploitation of an elderly Washington, D.C., man by his son.

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A recent national survey of police chiefs by the House Select Committee on Aging indicates the problems of elder abuse are much more widespread than previously thought, a committee spokesman says. And the police chiefs estimate only "the tip of the iceberg" has been seen so far, the spokesman says.

"We're going to see an increase [in abuse of elders]," predicts Karel Cornwell, supervisor for Adult Protective Services for the District of Columbia. Cuts in city home-aide services and general inflation are putting added pressures on families caring for the elderly, she says.

Only 15 states have elder abuse reporting laws. The District of Columbia needs one, says Mrs. Cornwell. Such laws allow social workers to investigate reported cases of abuse, she adds.

But a court-issued search warrant and "informed consent" or court consent to any change of residence should be required under state laws dealing with elder abuse, says John Regan, dean of Hofstra University Law School in Hempstead, N.Y.

As for a national center on elder abuse, it would be a "horrible waste of resources," says Bryan Tilley of the Arkansas Office of Aging. Action, not further study, is needed, he says.

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