By Justin Strawser
The Daily Item
SUNBURY — Every time the phone rings at the Northumberland County Area Agency on Aging, the protective services employees manning the call center are prepared for heartbreaking stories like the ones that have become increasingly frequent in recent years.
The number of cases for suspected and substantiated senior abuse has risen across the state, including in Northumberland, Union, Snyder and Montour counties.
Also, the number of cases of suspected abuse, neglect, self-neglect and/or exploitation have more than doubled in some counties since 2015, according to data provided by Area Agency on Aging departments across the Valley.
“Protective services is very important,” said Angela Mashuck, a protective services worker. “I think sometimes consumers (elderly clients) feel they don’t have anywhere to turn, that people might not believe them because they’re older and their memory might not be the best, or they’re not in the best shape. Our job is very important because it gives them somewhere to turn to. We take them seriously. We work our best to respect their wants and wishes while keeping them safe.”
The intake case aides answer phone calls daily on reports of abuse. The callers can remain anonymous.
Then those reports are investigated to determine whether the allegations are true, and then the agency works to protect the elderly person.
“I’ve investigated all different kinds of abuse and neglect, some more severe than others,” Mashuck said. “It’s heartbreaking, especially the self-neglect you see when they don’t quite know where to to get help or find the resources to help them live better.”
In Pennsylvania, according to state Department of Aging’s communication director Drew Wilburne, the number of reports received Increased from 20,133 in 2015 to 28,632 by 2017. Substantiated reports rose from 5,221 in 2015 to 6,771 in 2017.
That’s significantly higher than 10 years ago. In 2008, Wilburne said, the number of reported cases was 13,334, with 2,742 reports substantiated.
“Pennsylvania Code Title 6., Chapter 15 defines an older adult in need of protective services as ‘an incapacitated older adult who is unable to perform or obtain services that are necessary to maintain physical or mental health, for which there is no responsible caretaker and who is at imminent risk of danger to his person or property,” said Wilburne. “For additional reference, and older adult is defined as, ‘a person within the jurisdiction of this Commonwealth who is 60 years of age or older.’”
This is the criteria used to determine if a report of abuse is substantiated, Wilburne said.
Karen Leonovich, the administrator for Northumberland County Area Agency on Aging, said counties have such a big difference between reported cases and substantiated cases because many of the cases do not meet the criteria of being substantiated.
“It doesn’t mean that nothing is wrong, but it doesn’t fit the definition of what it means to be protected,” Leonovich said. “There’s criteria they need to fit. Are they in need of protective services? They may not need the intervention, they’re not at immediate risk, they may just need care management. These are the services of meals, bathing, those type of things.”
If the cases are substantiated, the county’s deal with them and even partner with local authorities, if criminal activity is suspected, she said.
“Though it is difficult to determine the exact reason why reports of abuse continue to increase, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging believes there a few trends to note,” Wilburne said. “The first being that the aging population has grown. As this population grew, so has the number of reports of abuse. Secondly, the department, senior advocates, and stakeholders have put much effort into creating awareness of elder abuse and ensuring the public knows how to report abuse when it is suspected.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in July 2016 that the senior population (age 65 and older) was 37,170 out of the total population of 196,917 for Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Montour counties. Comparatively, the 2010 Census shows a decrease in total four-county population — from 198,444 — but an increase in the senior population — from 33,876.
The data shows that each of the four counties are higher than the statewide numbers. Northumberland County, in 2016, had 20.3 percent of its population as seniors ages 65 and above, Snyder County at 17.4 percent, Union County at 16.6 percent and Montour at 20.6 percent compared to Pennsylvania at 17.4 percent. Northumberland County in 2010 had 18.5 percent, Snyder had 15.5, Union had 14.8 and Montour had 18.6 compared to the state’s 15.4 percent.
The commonwealth is home to more than 12.8 million residents. Of these, approximately 2.9 million are adults age 60 and older, and more than 300,000 are aged 85 and older, according to the Department of Aging and U.S. Census Bureau.
In Northumberland County, reports of senior abuse have increased significantly since 2011: 148 referrals then compared to 518 referrals in 2017. Of the 113 cases that met the criteria for further investigation in 2010, 50 were substantiated. Comparatively, of the 312 cases in 2016 investigated, 103 were substantiated.
Leonovich said the senior population is increasing as well as public awareness and information, therefore leading to more referrals.
“There are a lot of cases where I don’t sleep at night,” Leonovich said. “Had we not intervened, it would have been death. Unless we have a referral, we wouldn’t know to intervene.”
One such tragic incident occurred on Feb. 15, 2015, when 66-year-old Ellen Jackson died due to hypothermia. Her daughter, Mary Ellen Collins, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter in 2016 for allowing her mother to lay on a floor near a door in her house seven hours without blankets or heating oil in a home with an inoperable furnace and frozen plumbing.
“We’re out in the community, we’re educating on that,” Leonovich said. “It’s more recognized now, and it lets people know where to call for help and that it’s OK to report.”
When reports come in, Leonovich said each one is looked at and determined whether it rises to the level of an investigation from the agency or whether it should be referred elsewhere.
“We work toward eliminating risks,” Leonovich said. “We don’t go after the perpetrator. We refer that to local police or the district attorney’s office on a regular basis.”
The county agency works closely with county detective Degg Stark, especially with cases of exploitation, or telephone scams, where those perpetrators are convincing seniors to send money to them under false pretense.
“Seniors are our most frail and vulnerable citizens,” Leonovich said. “The scammers and abusers prey on those who have trouble being independent. That’s why we’re here.”
Amy Sanders, an intake case aide in Northumberland County for the last 17 years, said the push in advertising has put senior abuse in the public view.
“I think we’re becoming a little more well known,” Sanders said. “People knew where to call when there’s a child being abused, but people didn’t know when there’s a place to call for elderly people as well.”
The numbers are higher in Northumberland County due to population size and number of seniors, according to officials.
“We have a higher population, and a higher population of older adults,” Leonovich said. “It’s a naturally high volume of calls. We have a lot of frail and older adults.”
The administrators for the Snyder/Union Area Agency on Aging and the for Columbia/Montour Area Agency on Aging provided the number of cases for the last three years.
In Snyder/Union counties, the total number of referrals was 193. Of those 136 investigated, 71 were substantiated. In 2017, 416 referrals came through. Of those 217 investigated, 108 were substantiated.
When an emphasis across the state was placed on reporting nearly 30 years ago, the county was only seeing two reports a month. Now, those numbers are higher, with the peak month being in October 2017 with just shy of 100 referrals, according to Holly Kyle, the administrator of the Union-Snyder Counties Area Agency on Aging.
“We live in a Commonwealth where the population is increasing,” said Kyle. “As more people are living here, and the longer people are living, the likelihood of having problems increases.”
As people live longer, they have varying issues. The most frequent type of abuse seen is self-neglect, which is included in the reports, Kyle said.
“When self-neglect happens, it’s a result of people not realizing they need help,” she said. “The world seems normal to them, but things are not. It is by far the No. 1 type of abuse we see, followed pretty closely by financial exploitation: family members ripping family members off or children helping themselves to mom and dad’s money.”
Another new factor is the opioid epidemic, which leads to people stealing older folk’s medication, Kyle said.
Another growing trend is abuse of the power of attorney, in which well intentioned people take someone’s money, Kyle said.
Kyle said agencies take “every opportunity” to talk to people about elder abuse, what can be done to prevent it and what can be done to correct it.
Kyle works closely with law enforcement and the court, especially President Judge Michael T. Hudock.
In Columbia/Montour, the numbers were nearly as dramatic. In 2015, 249 referrals came through. Of of the 182 investigated, 81 were substantiated. In 2017, 364 referrals came through. Of the 145 investigated, 87 were substantiated.
When protective services was first established nearly 30 years go, the number for Columbia and Montour counties were some of the highest in the state when considering the population, according to Columbia-Montour Counties Area Agency on Aging Administrator Kathi Lynn.
“We took it very seriously,” Lynn said. “Our numbers were high to begin with.”
Christine Pritchard, the protective services supervisor in the two counties, said the number of substantiated cases were high and stayed relatively the same over the years.
“The word is getting out there,” she said. “More people are confident to to call us. The police, the paramedics, the hospitals, know to call us. They know we’re going to get out there and do the best and help these folks.”
Reports come in daily, she said.
Senior Helpers in Sunbury, a for-profit business whose caregivers provide companionship, personal and live-in care for seniors, deals with a lot of senior citizens who are self-neglecting, according to owner Bobbi Emanuel.
“They don’t take medication, they don’t bathe, they don’t do proper mouth care,” Emanuel said. “Most are homebound. They’ve shut themselves off.”
Many family members are 200 miles away from their elderly relatives, so many of the seniors have nobody, she said.
They have also seen cases of abuse and neglect, where children are too overwhelmed with caring for their parents or there’s been a falling out, and they cut ties, Emanuel said.
“We see that a lot, or we see kids who don’t want to pay for it,” she said. “They know the money is there, and it’s theirs when they pass away. I see that as neglect, too.”
Missy Shaffer, the Meals on Wheels coordinator for the Central Susquehanna Interfaith Council in Sunbury, has between 25 and 30 older clients on five routes throughout the city. She and the volunteers have seen cases and have recommended to family members the senior can no longer stay by themselves.
“There are people who need help,” Shaffer said. “We try to look out for them. It’s a day to day struggle for them.”
Cynthia Walker, the coordinator of the Lewisburg/Milton Meals on Wheels, said about 75 people are served, not all seniors. They don’t run into many cases, because “it’s the folks that don’t receive our services who are the greatest risk.”
“The delivery people will contact me with any concerns and I call the emergency contact,” Walker said. “Providing one is a requirement. If the concern is not addressed, I contact the appropriate county Agency on Aging Protective Services.”
The program doesn’t have any set policies if they suspect abuse or self-neglect, but they will keep an eye out or talk to the proper family member or authorities if needed, Shaffer said.
Robert A. Roush, executive director of The Arc Susquehanna Valley, said the organization started in 1965 serves intellectually and developmentally disabled clients, some of which are at traditional retirement age and in their 70s and 80s. Disabled people experience abuse and neglect at seven times the rate of the general population, he said.
“As seniors, our clients that may not have been recognized as “vulnerable” when younger, can experience abuse the same way as any senior. What I am saying here, is that the abuse seniors experience, begins at any age with the disabled,” Roush said. “On the other hand, if ID/D individuals are in a good program, they need not fear self-neglect, because they will get the help they need. The other edge of the sword comes in when the people that are entrusted to care for them become the abusers. Clients can be physically and sexually abused, as well as stolen from, regularly. Sometimes disabled individuals can recognize the abuse, but cannot communicate to someone else what is happening, meaning the abuse can happen for a long time before being detected. It is sad, and it’s been revealed as a bigger problem than anyone ever suspected.”
The Arc provides financial assistance programs that guard seniors’ money from theft.
“This runs out of our office, and the funds only reach clients in small amounts as cash,” Roush said. “This helps prevent theft, but not always. We might also recognize signs of abuse in our social programs. Our employees are trained to recognize abuse and to report it. The Arc Susquehanna Valley does not provide direct in-home aid to our self-advocates. Instead, we are an advocacy organization. If we learn of instances of suspected abuse, we make the report so that officials can investigate. On a State and Federal level, The Arc is involved in making lawsuits against institutions that may abuse or trample on the rights of ID/D individuals.”
The approach is proactive, he said.
“There is a lot of abuse out there, but, people who view seniors as vulnerable need to think twice,” Roush said. “If we discover any cases of this type of abuse, we will push to punish the abusers to the maximum limit of the law. There’s even been talk of increasing penalties for elder and disability abuse. We support that, but, we support the prevention of abuse more. People should contact the organizations in the area that serve seniors, and be sure they are getting the services they need.”
The local officials encourage those with suspected reports of abuse to call their local Agencies.
“Call us,” said Pritchard. “All our reports are confidential. There’s a fear a lot of people have, of retribution. People are growing more confident with that.”
The agencies rely on the reports, Leonovich said.
Email Justin Strawser at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLStrawser.