By Barb Arland-Fye
His elderly father died of a broken heart, humiliated because a woman he trusted took advantage of him financially, the son tells an interviewer in a new documentary on elder abuse.
The son explains that he had hired the woman to take his dad – a survivor of Pearl Harbor and a retired, successful businessman — on errands and to appointments. But she cashed in on his credit card. The old man was shocked when his son questioned him about luxury items the woman had charged to his account. “Because I’m old, she thinks I’m stupid,” the father told the son. The father lost weight and self-esteem as the impact of the crime unfolded, and then he died. “You not only broke his spirit, you broke his heart,” the son says in a victim impact statement read in court about the woman who defrauded his father. “She was a direct contribution to his death,” the son tells viewers of the documentary titled “An Age for Justice: Confronting Elder Abuse in America.”
I had the privilege of previewing this compelling, 16-minute video with the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Director, Kent Ferris, and others last week at the Center for Active Seniors Inc. (CASI) in Davenport. The Pearl Harbor survivor’s story is one of four told in the documentary, a collaborative effort of 17 elder rights advocates, the National Council on Aging, and Witness, an international human rights organization that uses video to effect change.
Promotional materials about the documentary say the stories of these courageous American elders “ask us to imagine what we would do if someone we loved was beaten, neglected, or exploited and we were in a position to do something about it.”
Kelly Matheson, a Davenport native and filmmaker, showed the documentary at CASI and said a national screening initiative will be April 15. The documentary producers’ goal is to not only increase awareness about the problem of elder abuse, but to secure passage and funding of the Elder Justice Act.
The law is included in the health insurance reform legislation that the U.S. House passed March 21. With appropriate funding, the law would help prevent, detect, intervene and prosecute elder abuse, Matheson said.
A strong message of the documentary is that “elder abuse is occurring in probably every ZIP code in the United States.” As the son of the Pearl Harbor survivor observed, all of us could become victims of elder abuse. This type of abuse refers to “intentional or neglectful acts by a caregiver or ‘trusted’ individual that leads to, or may lead to, harm of a vulnerable elder,” according to a fact sheet provided at the screening I attended.
The Department of Justice reports that a minimum of one in 9 (11 percent) of Americans over age 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse in the past year. Many more cases go unreported. And in almost 90 percent of the elder abuse and neglect incidents with a known perpetrator, the perpetrator is a family member; two-thirds of these perpetrators are adult children or spouses.
A grandmother who shared her story in the documentary sadly described how her daughter would fight her and threaten to kill her. The grandmother cried at night. “Sometimes I wished I could just go away.”
The documentary moved me; I bought a DVD copy for just $5 and brought it home to show my family. After watching it, my 15-year-old son Patrick said, “What made me really sad was the daughter threatening to kill her own mom.”
My husband, Steve, said he’d heard about elder abuse, but viewing the stories of real victims in a documentary, “shows how much grief it causes.”
In “The Little Black Book” of meditations I’ve been reading for Lent, the authors make this observation in the reading for March 19: “How I treat people who are incapacitated — in any way — is a measure of my love for the Lord.”
Copies of the DVD are available after April 15 by visiting the Web site www.ElderJusticeNow.org/host-a-screening. I recommend you watch it.