Health

Hunts Point program protects seniors from abuse

A caseworker helps a client fill out paperwork. Courtesy of BronxWorks.

New York is the only state without professional reporting requirements of elder abuse

She counts the bills and comes up short. The apples and chicken will have to go, she thinks. The monthly $90 in food stamps did not stretch far enough once again and Mario will be mad. The guilt weighs on 66-year-old Camilla as she tries to figure out how to provide for her son and herself on her meager SNAP and SSI money. Dejected, entering her apartment, she sees her 43-year-old son playing computer games. When she tells him they won’t have chicken for dinner, he starts yelling at her.

It would be years before she realized her own son was emotionally and financially abusing her.

The real names in this scenario have been changed for fear of retaliation. They are Bronx residents and are representative of a larger population of elder abuse cases that sometimes go undetected, according to local experts in the field.

Seventy-six out of every 1,000 older New Yorkers were victims of elder abuse in a one-year period, according to the New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study. Despite more funding for Department for the Aging programs and senior services throughout the city, elder abuse cases continue to happen. By 2040, the population 65 years and over is expected to increase by 40.7 percent in New York City.

“Imagine all those people aging into the system,” said BronxWorks Senior Services Department Director Maria Rivera, “how will they be able to live?” when resources become scarcer and rents continue to increase.

In many cases of elder abuse, retiring seniors cannot afford to pay their bills so they rent out their homes to people who later take advantage of them, Rivera explained. She said nine out of 10 times these situations become abusive.

To date, New York is the only state without any professional reporting requirements of elder abuse. Earlier this year, Sue Serino, a New York state senator and chair of the Aging Committee, introduced a bill that aims to establish mandated reporters responsible for reporting suspected incidents of elder abuse or maltreatment.

“Victims are reluctant to reach out because of pride, shame and embarrassment—they wonder if they’re a bad parent,” said Evelyn Laureano, executive director of the Neighborhood Self Help by Older Persons Project.

The first elder abuse program to operate in the South Bronx, SHOPP receives referrals from Adult Protective Services and it gives presentations to local senior centers twice a year where cases are also reported.

Elder abuse is often not the presenting problem, Laureano explained, but instead the victim comes in with a different crisis situation like eviction or Con Edison has turned off the electricity. That is when she and her Violence Intervention & Prevention social workers look into income records to find unpaid bills the victim thought had been paid.

“This is not stranger abuse—there’s a relationship there with an expectation,” Laureano said. Camilla did not know her son was abusing her until she ran into a different financial issue that required assistance from BronxWorks.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our society see a senior and they feel as though they’re alone,” said BronxWorks Elder Abuse Case Manager Natalie Ayala, because it appears as if there are no advocates for the seniors.

Camilla first came to Ayala after a furniture company overcharged her $4,000 for a $700 bed. She thought she only needed financial help but the more she told Ayala about her life, it became clear to the social worker that Camilla’s son was emotionally and financially abusing her.

In addition to accompanying clients like Camilla to court, BronxWorks provides them with meals and other support services. Ayala also manages cases involving hoarding, squatting, and emotional abuse like Camilla’s.

“It’s crazy that our society thinks of seniors as a forgotten population,” said Ayala. “Guess what? That’s where we’re all headed.”

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