Bergen County received over a thousand referrals of alleged elder abuse last year, according to a county official.
“While we don’t think of it, we think of more the physical side. The elderly are not usually technology savvy, so people have been able to take advantage of them by using technology, their bank accounts and being able to look at their checking accounts,” said Bergen County Executive James Tedesco.
A panel of legal, medical and financial experts met at a Bergen County conference to discuss ways to prevent elder abuse. While New Jersey has laws to protect seniors, experts say they’re not likely to report falling victim to crimes.
“They will never, or most of them I will say, will never report any of this, not because they were victims — that’s one thing, the shame that they feel goes along with that. But a lot of them tell me that they are afraid that if their children find out, that they will put them in a nursing home or think they can no longer care for themselves,” said Lorraine Joewono, director of the Bergen County Division of Senior Services.
Bergen County is unique because it has the only senior elder abuse facility in the state.
“It’s called Safe Haven. It’s been open since 2015. There are only, I want to say 11 or 12 such facilities throughout the country,” said Maria Aberasturi, assistant administrative supervisor of social work in Bergen County.
The program also included an aging sensory simulation using cotton balls, a rubber glove and glasses to show firsthand how older adults may be facing life’s challenges of aging.
“So when you go out to the field or you’re interacting with the older adults, please try to remember what today felt like. Remember what glaucoma felt like,” said Maureen Mulligan, a nurse at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center.
“I can teach, and teach, and teach about this, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to experience this and how vulnerable they may be,” said Ramapo College associate professor Kim Lorber.
And taking legal action on behalf of seniors isn’t always easy. In many cases, legal experts say the abuser is usually a relative, making power of attorney problematic.
“If assets are depleted, when the senior goes to apply for Medicaid and things of that nature where they need to remain in their home, oftentimes they are denied because the assets have disappeared and the senior can’t explain where they went. It’s often a family member who acts as an agent, which is a normal situation, But the problem is when the relative abuses the authority of the financial power of attorney, the senior is hesitant to report it,” said Anna Navatta, director community relations at North East New Jersey Legal Services.
Sometimes the abuse comes as a result of a loved one being overwhelmed.
“Not all caregivers are equal in the way they provide. Family often are in the position where they are so, in their own words, abused in the sense that they’ve taken on more then they can handle. Good people abuse, not just people who have, in their mind, negative things,” said Ria Sklar, founder of SAFE Bergen County.