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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jennifer H. Ballantyne: Promote Alzheimer’s Awareness to prevent elder abuse

By Jennifer H. Ballantyne

I provided and managed care for my mother during her six-year decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite my efforts to keep her safe, as she grew more vulnerable my mother was the victim of elder abuse several times, which caused her serious harm. Elder abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, sexual and/or financial. It can be intentional on the part of the perpetrator or result from negligence.

The incidents my mother suffered – the ones I knew about – were physical abuse, which affects about one-quarter of the population of older adults with dementia. She was injured by another resident at the memory care facility which was her home, and neglected by her caregivers after suffering a stroke.

Before she entered care, Mom was also financially exploited by a companion I hired who I had known and trusted since I was a child.

Even sadder statistics are that 62% of these adults with dementia suffer psychological abuse and roughly half of adults with dementia suffer multiple forms of abuse. The consequences of this abuse are great – premature death, deteriorated physical and mental health, destroyed social and family ties, financial loss and more.

The pandemic has heightened the threat as many elders are now isolated, without access to their usual support systems.

Professionals who are responsible for responding to the needs of victims of elder abuse and providing them with support and advocacy – police, firefighters, emergency personnel, medical personnel, victims services professionals, social workers, attorneys, judges – often know little about working with people who have dementia compared to other victims of abuse or exploitation.

This is understandable. The ability of people living with dementia to understand and communicate what happened is impaired. Behaviors of these people are often interpreted as uncooperative, disruptive or even combative.

Cognitive impairment makes it difficult for these victims to assist investigators and prosecutors in dealing with the perpetrators of this abuse. It is critical we address this important gap in the advocates’ understanding.

The burden Alzheimer’s and other dementias place on individuals and their families continues to grow. More than 5 million U.S. elders age 65 and older are among those living with Alzheimer’s in 2020. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, of these, 120,000 are Washington residents. These numbers are expected to triple by 2050. Every one of these individuals is at great risk of suffering elder abuse. As their numbers grow, so too will their interactions with people who are supposed to support and advocate for them.

There is hope and it comes from a bipartisan congressional effort – The Promoting Alzheimer’s Awareness to Prevent Elder Abuse Act (S. 3703/H.R. 6813). This proposed legislation would require the Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop training to help professionals providing support to victims of abuse living with dementia. This training would improve the quality of the interactions these professionals have with these victims and help protect them from elder abuse. Further, the legislation requires DOJ to report to Congress on the dissemination and use of the dementia-specific training materials every year.

This legislation is consistent with our National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease and will enhance the Elder Justice Act, an important piece of legislation, soon to be reauthorized, which supports programs and initiatives to better coordinate federal responses to elder abuse.

Please urge Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers to support the passage and reauthorization of this bipartisan legislation to protect our elders living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias from elder abuse.

Families coping with elders suffering Alzheimer’s and other dementias will understand when I say that it was my great privilege to help my mother through her journey … and I hope my children never have to do the same for me. My mother’s journey inspired a late-in-life career change for me. I attended Gonzaga Law and became an elder law attorney in my early 60s to advocate for all elders and their families, especially those coping with dementia. I want to live in a society that protects the vulnerable parts of our population. Where elders are concerned, we start this effort by supporting legislation and funding to protect them from abuse and keep them safe.

Jennifer H. Ballantyne is an elder law attorney in Liberty Lake.

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