One Side of the IssueRecently in my hometown of Canton, Ohio a trio of lowlife relatives of an 88 year old man were sentenced to prison for their failure to care for him before he died under horrific health conditions and a near total lack of sanitation, all the while cashing his social security checks. Their treatment of the man has led local agencies to hold workshops on elder abuse and the local paper to run sides bars titled "Help protect the elderly." But the paper has not presented the other side, the side of the elderly who are being forced out of their homes in cruel, unprepared ways into expensive nursing homes, who are being harassed by Adult Protective Services in ways that purport to be helpful and are in fact rude and presumptuous.
The Other Side
This past summer, my 82-year-old aunt was taking care of her home and husband, my 83-year-old uncle, when she received a letter saying that she had been reported for possible elder abuse and would be visited by Adult Protective Services. In the meantime, it was reported that my uncle had a gun in the house, and they were given two days to get rid of it by taking it to the police.
Later that day, her son called with a related message: if his parents did not move into a senior facility within two weeks, they would be in big trouble. If she were found guilty of elder abuse, she would go to jail, and my uncle, who depends on her, would be sent alone to "a nursing home, I don't know what kind," my cousin said, "probably a public one, probably not very nice." This son had not even been at his parents' house for months, not even that winter when my uncle fell on the ice retrieving the mail and had to go to the emergency ward. He reiterated the warning about the gun.
Now, my aunt and uncle would like to point out that the gun in question is 20 gauge shotgun that my grandfather gave my uncle (as he gave each of his 8 sons) the day he turned 14. My uncle considered it a valuable family heirloom and not a means of wrecking violence on himself or the neighborhood. Nevertheless, my aunt found a gun collecting relative to give it to, through the hands of the local police. This particular use of force is one my uncle remains bitter about, months afterward.
My aunt was beside-herself upset after receiving the letter, but she is one tough biscotti, and she got on the phone with everyone she could think of: the Stark County Council on Aging, the Veterans Administration, and even the law firm of her former lawyer, who had died awhile back. They all said they would not get involved with family issues. Finally one agency referred her to a retired lawyer in Massillon who provided some advice: that she should meet the examiners at the door with equanimity and then hope that the intelligence he heard in her voice would carry her through.
So she did. And in fact, when Adult Protective Services walked in the door to her clean, beautifully-decorated house, the examiner said, "Well, I don't know what I am doing here." Nevertheless, the visits ground on for six weeks, often in the morning before my aunt and uncle had even had breakfast. My aunt finally asked if they could please come just an hour later. At the end of the six weeks, my aunt was cleared of any charges of spousal abuse--she who has cared for my uncle so well for so long. But the emotional upheaval has taken its toll. Today on the phone, she said, "It's so humiliating. It's a call from a government agency, all but accusing you of wrongdoing.
Eventually, her doctor confessed that since her husband's sugar readings had been super-high, he had asked the local hospital social worker to see if my aunt needed help with cooking and with delivering my uncle's medicine. The doctor was shocked to hear what she had been put through and said he would never refer anyone again. AND it turned out that my uncle's high sugar readings were caused by a change in medicine that my aunt had reported as the issue weeks earlier.
What my aunt and uncle were put through was incredibly upsetting. As I have said, my aunt is a very intelligent, tough woman. And though my uncle has been through many injuries, one which left him with a metal plate in his head, he is remains smart and funny and tough himself. They have each other and they have a neighborhood of friends and a few of us relatives who agreed to come stand in the yard and bear witness, if nothing else, if any more transpired.
It's harder when the elderly person is alone. A year ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article about an 87-year old woman who died of a massive heart attack shortly after receiving a letter from Adult Protective Services, saying she had been reported as not being able to care for herself. She had been having trouble making ends meet, since her decades- long job as an adjunct professor for Duquesne University had left her with no health or retirement benefits. But she was mortified by the letter and, many believe, simply died of weariness and the mortification.
It's not as if these Adult Protective Services letters suggest they are coming to help you. No, here is how my aunt's letter opens: "The purpose of this notice is to inform you of our intent to conduct an Adult Protective Service Investigation." Such an introduction to the seniors who receive them can seem so very threatening.
And they are threatening. There isn't a single senior who hasn't had a friend dragged off to a senior facility against their will. Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Phillip Morris has been chronicling the story of the 107-year-old Judge Jean Murrell Capers who has been forced into a senior living facility and into a guardianship, despite the fact that she sure seems capable of making her own decisions. He notes that there is a growing number of centenarians in the U.S., the vast majority of them women.
Today, I called in to check on my aunt.
"How are you doing?" I asked.
"Kicking butt," she said.
"Oh good, I said. "Then everything is back to normal."