The United Nations declared June 15 World Elder Abuse Day to highlight an issue that will only increase as elderly populations grow. It represents the one day a year the world acknowledges abuse and neglect of older generations.
Defined by the United Nations “as a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person,” elder abuse can take many forms. It can be physical, psychological, sexual, neglectful or financial, and is often under-reported due to victims’ fear of hurting loved ones. With the global population of those 60 and older estimated to double by 2050, the issue is only set to become more prevalent.
While Citizen Potawatomi cultural traditions center on reverence for one’s ancestors and elders, the issue is present at the Tribal level. If a Tribal adult is unable to make decisions concerning their health and welfare, CPN Adult Protective Services caseworkers will seek out family members to serve as a guardian. If one is not available, APS workers will — on behalf of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation — file for temporary guardianship until a court appoints a permanent one.
Often the first ones to notice the mistreatment of Tribal elders are frontline CPN health care employees, including community health representatives or first responders like Tribal police officers. For a long time, even if they suspected elder abuse, there was not a dedicated department to turn to for the next step of assessing and addressing its occurrences.
That is how CPN Indian Child Welfare Director Janet Draper became involved.
“Someone called me because the abuse sounded like what someone would call in for a kid, so that’s how I started helping on this,” Draper said.
The calls kept coming.
“Once they knew someone was looking into it, my phone didn’t stop ringing,” she said. Draper now leads CPN’s Adult Protective Services Program alongside her responsibilities as Indian Child Welfare director. She focuses on four specific kinds of actions found amongst the elders she serves: financial abuse, neglect, physical abuse and psychological abuse.
As a longtime child welfare advocate, one would think Draper has seen it all. However, aging adults face unique challenges. Unscrupulous guardians may siphon off retirement or Social Security payments, or family members exploiting their resources may commandeer their home. Draper recounts instances where grandparents’ homes became flophouses for children and grandchildren, living rent-free while their elder’s mental and physical health deteriorates. Often they will refuse to sell the house and enter a nursing home or assisted living center because their descendant would lose their place to stay.
Sometimes, an aging adult’s developmental disabilities or mental health issues impair their ability to make sound decisions about their well-being. Draper noted many of the elders she monitors have a trusting nature.
“You’ll go up to their door to do a wellness check and knock, and you’ll hear from inside someone answer, ‘Come on in. It’s unlocked,’” Draper said. “They are so trusting, but what if it was someone with bad intentions?”
She cared for her aging father for many years, eventually moving him into her home. To see elders in similar circumstances who are taken advantage of by loved ones and left alone without support is a challenge for the longtime child welfare officer.
“I love my elders. Sometimes they’re easier to work with because they often want some help. A lot of the time, they’re lonely and just need someone to talk to. They call me pretty regularly,” Draper said.
She is currently working on a grant application to help increase the budget for CPN’s Adult Protective Services. If approved, she will train other caseworkers in APS techniques and common elder abuse issues.
“Something I learned with my dad — when you really can start to tell they’re heading downhill mentally is to look at their checkbook,” she said.
Elders from a generation who balanced their household budgets to the penny continue to do so well into their golden years. When Draper receives a call on an APS inquiry, she will often ask to review their checkbook.
“You can almost see the day they’ve gotten sick because their handwriting in previous entries is crisp and legible. Then there will be a day where the numbers and letters aren’t staying inside the lines, and the math doesn’t add up,” she said. “It’s usually a sign they’ve gotten sick, and when you’re older, your mental facilities start to go, and you can see it in their writing.”
In other instances, Draper will ask the person if they have eaten anything the day they make their inquiry. Typically, the elder will answer in the affirmative, but the kitchen or dining room indicate no signs of food.
“They get sick; they stop taking care of themselves, and that’s simple stuff like eating,” she said.
For those who are supporting younger generations, Draper looks for signs of activity at their house around the first of each month. If an elder typically runs short of money by the end of the month and the beginning brings a flurry of visitors, it indicates someone may be siphoning off their retirement or Social Security payments. She also keeps an eye on medications for those in her charge, especially prescription opioids.
On occasion, Draper has to put the safety of the elder and the public ahead of their desire to remain independent. She has had to testify in Tribal court in cases where the police suspended an elder’s driving privileges out of concern they were a danger to themselves and the general public.
“This one gentleman told me, ‘I don’t like you,’ and I understood. We were taking away his independence, and that’s hard for someone who has lived their whole life with that ability to get in a car and go where they needed,” she said.
While the caseload is not likely to ever recede for more than a few weeks — at the time of writing, she’d closed more than a dozen — it’s important work for Draper and for the Nation.
Please call 405-878-4831 to report abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable Tribal adults to CPN Adult Protective Services.