On July 1, my wife and I made an emergency trip to a small community in Arkansas to relocate my sister who had become a victim of elder abuse. The short story is that my sister required living assistance following the death of her husband three years ago. She suffered from a debilitating arthritis, diabetes, and asthma. Her son stepped into the void, purchased a house largely with her savings, and provided food and some transportation for her. Her health improved since her most basic needs were provided. However, he assumed control of all her finances and kept her isolated. She had only minimal contact with the outside world – no television, no computer access, and no newspapers. He often answered her phone when I called. In the meantime he received all her income – pension, social security, and any investments. The crisis was precipitated when my sister revoked the son’s power of attorney. The son reacted by temporarily threatening to make her responsible for her own food. Fortunately a well-staffed assisted living facility nearby had one vacancy available, and my sister was able to move in immediately.  However, she lost many of her possessions in the process. The son never displayed insight that his actions were problematic.

Help Is Available

Elder abuse is unfortunately common in the United States. A recent Commercial Appeal article stated that one in ten adults over age 60 experiences abuse. According to the National Council on Aging, abuse takes a number of forms: physical, emotional (psychological), neglect, abandonment, sexual, and financial. In my sister’s case it was financial and psychological with a final threat (perhaps bluff) of neglect and abandonment. Psychological abuse occurs with saying hurtful words, yelling, or ignoring the victim. Isolating the elderly person can be a part of this. Neglect is failure to respond to the victim’s needs. Abuse is easier to carry out when the elderly person has disabilities, frailty, dementia, or milder memory problems. Suspect abuse when the victim seems depressed, becomes withdrawn, has unexplained injuries, appears unkempt, or develops bedsores. My sister appeared withdrawn when her son was present, which included all visits to her doctor.

There are people waiting to help. For us, the local sheriff provided an immediate health and welfare check and assisted with an uneventful relocation. Each state has an elder abuse hotline, a toll-free number to report abuse and receive advice. For Tennessee this number is 1-888-APS-TENN (277-8366). There is a national hotline at 1-800-677-1116 and a website at https://ncea.acl.gov/.

For caregivers whose stress could tip them over into an abusive situation, there is also help. The ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center National Respite Locator at https://archrespite.org/respitelocator provides access to respite services. If the elderly person happens to be a veteran, there’s a highly organized Caregiver Support Service available by calling 1-855-260-3274. Dr. Linda Nichols, a recent speaker at our church, has conducted internationally-acclaimed VA-based research to assist over-burdened caregivers.

The Rest of the Story

Our story has a happy ending. My wife and I have visited my sister three times since her move. She is ambulating better despite her arthritis, and her self-confidence has returned. She seems to know everyone in her assisted living facility and is now involved in their lives. Her local church has been highly supportive by providing her transportation to Sunday School and worship services each Sunday, helping decorate her room, and showing their love and concern in many other ways. My sister still has much to give back to her community. She was a piano performance major in college and served as a church organist for many years. Now she plays a mini-concert for the assisted living facility on Monday through Saturday with favorite oldies and hymns. She helps her church by playing for its services and providing the piano accompaniment for an Appalachian band which, she tells us, is a highly talented group. She is no longer withdrawn but now has a purpose again in life. This is a story of Christian redemption with family, attorneys, friends, and good church folk all playing a role. This is also a story for the Advent season as sadness is replaced by hope, joy, faith, peace, and love.

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