- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

DAVENPORT, Iowa John Nelsen was a prisoner in his home, his wardens a young couple who lived with him.
They told the 71-year-old man that alarms would sound if he left the house. When Mr. Nelsen became more suspicious of the couple and wanted to call his bank to check on his money, they threatened to send him to a nursing home.
The couple, who never were charged, lived off Mr. Nelsen's money for more than six months, he said, using it to pay for everything from rent to the phone bill.
"I just had to get out of there," said Mr. Nelsen, who now lives in a boardinghouse. "I just couldn't take it anymore."
A U.S. Administration on Aging study estimates that up to 1 million elderly people each year are physically abused, neglected or financially exploited, but officials say that number is only a guess.
"We don't have a true grasp of it because it's such a big social problem. It's underreported, unrecognized. It's hard to get a good idea of how much of it is out there," said Linda Hildreth, state elder abuse coordinator at the Iowa Department of Elder Affairs.
The study looked at reports of elder abuse in 20 counties nationwide. Some say that doesn't represent the problem's true magnitude.
"Unfortunately, it also showed that only one in five comes to the attention of people who can do something to help," said Sara Aravanis, director of the National Center on Elder Abuse in Washington. "It's only the tiny tip of the iceberg that we know about. The rest remain hidden below the surface."
Kathleen Quinn, of the Illinois Department on Aging, believes the detection rate could be as low as one in 14.
"There's never been a national random population survey on elder abuse," she said, noting that it is difficult to gauge its scope because victims often are housebound or isolated by those who prey on them.
The federal Caregivers Support Program, implemented last year, provides money to states to open centers to teach caregivers about services such as home meal delivery, home health care and counseling.
"It helps guide them to practical solutions to the issues they are facing," Miss Quinn said.
The aging administration study, completed in 1997, showed that 84 percent of elder abuse came at the hands of a relative, most often the older person's grown child.
The boyfriend and girlfriend who were Mr. Nelsen's roommates pretended to be his friends in order to get to his money, said Scott Schluter, a coordinator for the Generations Area Agency on Aging in Davenport.
Mr. Nelsen gave the woman power of attorney over his finances but began to worry about how his money was being spent. He left the house last spring after a visit by a state social worker responding to a call from someone worried about Mr. Nelsen.
Because Mr. Nelson left voluntarily, the state worker classified the case as unfounded. No criminal charges were filed against the roommates, Mr. Schluter said.
Blossom Deering, 68, of Des Moines died in January 2000 of septic shock days after she was found mired in human waste in her home. She had been left there by her housemate.
Richard Smith Jr., 51, pleaded guilty to neglect and dependent adult abuse. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In New Mexico, a 75-year-old nursing home resident died in January of an infection caused by 22 bedsores, said Katrina Hotrum of the state's long-term care ombudsman's program.
"She was unable to scream or ask for help and was left rotting to death," Miss Hotrum said.
State agencies are investigating her death.
Michelle Grisham, director of the New Mexico Agency on Aging, said her group receives about 8,000 complaints of abuse each year concerning state-licensed nursing centers.
"Reporting is low because you have residents who aren't competent and can't communicate, and they are afraid of retaliation by staff," Miss Grisham said.
Eight states have laws specifically addressing abuse of the elderly: Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. Iowa uses a dependent abuse law to protect adults who rely on the help of others, Miss Hildreth said.
The way society views the elderly can make recognizing abuse difficult, she said.
"We tend to think they are adults, so they can take care of themselves and they can choose to live how they want," she said.Sandi Koll, of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said elderly people are vulnerable sometimes because of sheer stubbornness.
"I've actually had people tell me, 'I have the right to be abused,'" Miss Koll said.

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