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National Perspective | HEALTH

Priest to Offer Older Abuse Victims Shelter From Storms of Life

Mistreatment of elderly Americans--often by loved ones--spurs New York caregiver into action.

April 28, 1998|LISA MEYER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — She was an elderly Brooklyn widow, and she had nowhere to go.

She lived with her drug-addicted, unemployed adult son. Several times, he woke her in the middle of the night, demanding money or rides. Twice, she told authorities, he struck her, and once he pushed her. She hit the floor and could not get up.

"Get me 911," she pleaded. He did, then left before the ambulance arrived.

In Worcester, Mass., another elderly widow lived with her son in a dark and grimy house. He, too, did not have a job and often came home drunk. Because a meal she cooked for him was cold, he threw an iron pot at her. In San Diego, still another elderly woman was bludgeoned to death with a tire iron. Authorities charged her son with murder and said he stole her checkbook, then withdrew $1,000 from her account and bought heroin.

These women are not alone. Across the nation, elderly men and women of various economic classes are being physically, sexually, psychologically and financially abused and neglected, mostly by their adult children. Other relatives are the second most frequent abusers, followed by spouses, then hired caretakers.

In 1997, the National Center on Elder Abuse, a project funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that 2.1 million people over the age of 60 were abused, neglected or exploited, or 4.7% of all Americans of that age.

The NCEA has documented a 150.4% increase in the reporting of abuse since 1986.

Worse, most of the abuse is still hidden, the NCEA says. Some experts estimate that only one in 14 incidents comes to the attention of authorities. Most of the elderly refuse to report abuse. Many do not realize that they should. Some do not want to turn in loved ones. A few still feel responsible for taking care of a child who is harming them.

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In an aging society, the problem could worsen. By 2030, one in four Americans will be older than 60.

In Queens, N.Y., Father Coleman Costello, a Roman Catholic priest, is addressing this problem by building a shelter exclusively for elderly abuse victims. It will be among the few shelters in the nation of its sophistication and capacity. Costello, director of an abuse program called Walk the Walk, started planning his shelter when he could not find adequate housing for older people fleeing abusive situations.

"The average stay of the elderly in domestic violence shelters is only about three days," Costello says. "The elderly leave because the domestic violence shelters are designed for young women and their children. The staff don't have gerontological training, the buildings are not handicap accessible, and the shelters cannot accommodate the diets and special medical needs of the elderly."

Some Manhattan shelters, a study by the New York City Department for the Aging shows, will not accept older victims, who frequently are unable to reimburse shelter costs. The New York City Human Resource Administration reimburses shelters for those residents who are on public assistance, and in most cases, that refund will not cover an elderly person's stay.

Costello's shelter will have 20 beds, a trained gerontological staff and physicians on call in case of a medical emergency. The victims will have a chance to discuss their cases with lawyers and speak with counselors. The victims can stay up to three months. After they leave, Costello will monitor them to ensure that they are no longer being abused.

Herb Stupps, commissioner at the city Department for the Aging, says that Costello's shelter could serve as a model. "It will provide an example, and therefore data [that will show the need for this kind of service], so that shelters such as this can be built in other places."

Advocates for the prevention of elder abuse in Florida, Kansas and California already have sought Costello's advice. His main obstacle has been acquiring funds. Construction of his building will cost $1.8 million. Then Costello has to pay for the program itself. He has received grants from the state, City Council and foundations. A group of retired nuns has volunteered their time.

New York City's transit authority and some private bus lines will post free advertisements. Both the Queens borough president and the Brooklyn district attorney have offered free office space. Costello has organized fund-raisers. A few individuals have made donations.

Just as the number of old people is increasing and awareness of their abuse is growing, federal and state funds to help these people are in jeopardy, says Joanne Merlot, president of the National Assn. of Adult Protective Service Administrators. In 1987, a program was added to the 1965 Older Americans Act that requires the states to allocate funds for the prevention of abuse. But Congress did not appropriate those funds until 1990. Now Congress is questioning whether the program should even exist.

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