Elder abuse is increasing

Elder abuse is increasing as state's population grows older, officials say

SACRAMENTO -- Police said Kathleen Wilson fell in the kitchen of her Fairfield home in October 2003 and was left there until the remains of the 79-year-old woman were found 10 days ago.

Jane Edwards, 80, was discovered dead of pneumonia last month, after lying for up to two weeks in garbage in the Moorpark mobile home she shared with her son. Investigators said she died at least a day before he called for help.

The women's sons have been charged with abuse in the cases.

Horrifying as the accounts are, they're becoming more commonplace in California, where the state Department of Justice estimates 1 in every 20 elderly people are abused or neglected, but just 1 in 5 cases are reported.

About 200,000 elderly Californians suffer abuse or neglect each year -- two-thirds of them by family members, officials estimated.

It's even a problem at elderly care facilities, with more than 40 percent of the state's 1,352 nursing homes cited for abuse.

With a $6 million, three-year public awareness campaign set to end in July, politicians differ about what must be done next to let people know the extent of the problem.

The program mandated by state lawmakers involved television, radio and billboard ads depicting abused seniors. There were also brochures, tip sheets, posters and a "Citizens Guide to Preventing and Reporting Elder Abuse" in English and Spanish.

In September, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill proposed by Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer to convene an elder abuse council to improve coordination among state agencies by the end of this year.

Schwarzenegger said he believes there is a better way, ordering his Office of Emergency Services to review all existing programs and recommend improvements by the end of 2006. Hearings will start in May, said spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Some officials said it's critical to take action as soon as possible.

"These things are happening every day," said Peggy Osborn, who runs the attorney general's elder abuse prevention program. "As our elderly population grows, I think it's occurring more. I think what we're seeing is only the tip of the iceberg."

A number of disturbing cases have been discovered.

Authorities said Mary Peck, 85, of Daly City, sat in the same upholstered reading chair for five months until she died of infection in May 2003 from the waste that soiled her nightgown.

Her son is set to stand trial for abuse next month. He allegedly told police he kept her alive by feeding her frozen squares of a nutrient shake.

In the southern Coachella Valley, police reported finding an elderly man in a backyard shed with a dog bowl for water.

A statewide telephone hotline set up three years ago (1-888-436-3600) has fielded more than 6,500 calls, which, Osborn said, reflects an increase in awareness.

Yet, it's neighbors and family members who suspect problems but don't report them that most troubles her. In some cases, elderly victims hadn't been seen for years before the abuse was discovered. "People need to trust their instincts," Osborn said. "If you haven't seen somebody for several years -- you need to pick up the phone."

Elderly victims of financial, physical or emotional abuse or neglect often can't or won't report problems themselves. They're embarrassed, worry they won't be believed, or want to protect their caregiver -- often a family member. They may fear they'll be shipped to an institution.

"Elder abuse victims often live in silent desperation," said Collin Wong, director of the state Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse.

The older people get, the more vulnerable they become, officials said, and those 80 and older are the fastest-growing segment of California's population.

Elder abuse is often treated the way child abuse and domestic violence were handled until relatively recently, Wong said.

"Far too often it's been considered a family matter and not a crime," Osborn said.

On the Net:

"Citizens Guide to Preventing and Reporting Elder Abuse" at

Elder abuse in nursing homes at

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