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Elderly Abuse : From the Developing Picture of This Growing National Problem Comes the Critical Question: Why?

February 05, 1989|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

In North Hollywood, paramedics responding to an emergency call found 77-year-old Virginia Jeter in a waste- and pest-ridden bed. She died Dec. 26 in a Panorama City hospital. Her daughter, Cynthia Jeter Green, 38, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and endangering an elderly person through neglect. Green, according to her attorney, Marc A. Hentell, is undergoing psychiatric evaluation on his orders.

In Lakewood, ambulance attendants answering a call found 80-year-old Otelia Boithillet, whose body showed other signs of neglect, so emaciated that her vertebrae stuck through her skin. After she died Dec. 31 in a La Palma hospital, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office filed neglect and involuntary manslaughter charges against her son, Roger Louis Hummel, 54, and his wife, Cindy Lee Hummel, 31. Deputy Public Defender Gregory C. Fisher, appointed to represent Cindy Hummel, said the Hummels had not neglected Boithillet and, "certainly . . . weren't trying to cause (her) to suffer or let her lie there until she was dead. . . ."

In the South Bay, a 76-year-old widow, who asks that her name not be used, reports that her daughter has inquired about her insurance money, cursed at her and even shoved her. "My husband was an attorney, and he sometimes told me of cases of abuse of older adults," the terrified woman said. "But I never thought it would happen to me."

With frightening regularity, authorities say they are handling an increasing number of reports of abuse of the elderly, which some experts believe affects one of every 25 senior citizens nationwide each year.

Though this ugly secret of American society slowly is receiving more scrutiny, the haunting questions remain: How and why does abuse of the elderly occur? Who is likely to be abused and who is likely to be the abuser?

There are no simple responses, though experts have begun to develop a clearer picture of the problem.

It happens between spouses, some of whom write brutal final chapters to the tale of long tumultuous relationships. It happens between parents and children, some of whom cannot bear the shift in relationship that makes them responsible for trying to resolve unsolvable problems. It happens between the elderly and troubled relatives in their homes, individuals who have mental problems or histories of drug or alcohol abuse.

It happens in degrees. The abuse may be a relative being loud, mean or short with a senior. It can be that someone in their home inflicts psychological trials on the elderly, for example, by hiding their things to make them think they are becoming senile.

But elderly abuse also can become a crime involving violence and even death.

Elder abuse, according to a watershed 1985 report by a congressional subcommittee headed by 88-year-old Rep. Claude Pepper, (D.-Fla.), is a problem that is "increasing nationally."

"Stresses in our society" are partly to blame for that, said Dr. Daniel Thursz, president of the National Council on the Aging Inc. "For instance, the anger and frustrations of adult children, when they are faced with problems they can't solve, sometimes manifests itself, and they lash out."

Many families, he noted, are wracked by role reversals in which elderly parents, who are in the midst of other major and uncomfortable changes in their lives, also find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to take directions from their now-adult children.

The children, meantime, find themselves dealing with awkward situations involving their parents.

"Some of the behavior of the older person, such as falling, wandering around or turning up the volume on the radio or television, can cause some care-givers to look only at the negative side of the relationship," according to a booklet issued by Los Angeles County agencies concerned with the elderly.

As stated in another work, "You and Your Aging Parent" by Barbara Silverstone and Helen Hyman, daily dealings with older people also may provide disturbing reminders to younger people of their own aging, frailties and mortality; this, in turn, may affect how they relate to seniors.

Increased pressures by insurers and government health care programs for shorter periods of hospitalization also "may contribute to the problem" of elderly abuse, said Dr. Gary W. Small, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and co-author of "Parentcare." He noted that the "earlier discharge of patients places a greater burden on home care."

Money problems also can be a factor. "If the care-giver is under an economic burden, the resulting stress may contribute to elderly abuse," Small said.

Elder abuse also can be indicative of deeper individual and family problems. "If the family wasn't close-knit to begin with," Small said, "when a need for care arises, the resultant stress and frustrations aren't offset by the love that would otherwise be there."

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