Elder abuse is a serious and growing problem we know too little about and, worse, too often ignore. It comes in many forms—physical, financial, and emotional. Yet, even as society focuses on addressing child abuse, it has fallen far behind when it comes to responding to elder abuse. Here are a couple of examples of the right way, and the wrong way, to confront this problem:

First, the wrong way.  A true story with a few details changed: An 85-year-old man with life-threatening cancer lives at home with his wife (who is unable to care for him) and his adult son. The son, who serves as his father’s primary caregiver, is under tremendous stress, has serious behavioral issues, drinks heavily, and takes drugs. One day he brings home a handgun. When a paid caregiver learns about the weapon, she contacts her home care agency that, in turn, calls the community’s Adult Protective Services staff.

APS does nothing itself to investigate the matter. Instead, it calls the local police. An officer goes to the home, asks each of the residents if there is a gun in the house. They all deny it, and the officer leaves. There is nothing to be done, APS tells the home care agency, until “something happens.” That is to say, until the son shoots someone.

Here is a different way to address elder abuse: New York City responds aggressively to allegations of abuse, using teams of law enforcement officers, social workers, lawyers, and others. But a key challenge is helping abused elders find a safe place to live.  A Bronx nursing home has helped find a solution.

In 2004, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale and the Pace Women’s Justice Center created what became the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention. The project partners with more than a dozen government and non-profit organizations to provide a range of legal assistance, medical care, and social services to victims of abuse. It also trains law enforcement personnel and other service providers.

Much of the direct assistance is available to those who can still live in the community. But a key element is a shelter for abused seniors located at the Hebrew Home (and available to all regardless of religion). These elders, many of whom may have nowhere else to go, can stay for as long as a few months, though some may stay for just a few days.

The Hebrew Home solution is a classic win-win. Like many large, older nursing homes, the facility is plagued with empty beds. Rather than letting the space go to waste, the Hebrew Home created a shelter and opened up some otherwise-unused rooms to abused seniors.

The most interesting part of this story is that the Weinberg Center is now replicating the Riverdale experience at seven additional sites, including Fairfield, CT, Albany and Rochester NY, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Providence, RI.  There are plenty of other facilities that should follow suit.

At a time when senior services budgets are being squeezed, local governments, communities, and senior service providers need to work even more closely to find solutions. Dan Sewell of the AP wrote a nice piece on Sunday describing a couple of programs, including the Hebrew Home project.

But I can imagine even more ambitious efforts to reach out to communities. Senior villages, those grassroots non-profits that have sprung up in hundreds of neighborhoods around the country, seem like an ideal partner for a Weinberg-like program. So do churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques.  

As the population ages, more and more seniors will be victimized by abuse. But there are solutions that can be built on existing resources. We just need to look for them.