James and Etta Jennings moved to the Forest Hill neighborhood of Richmond in 1959. They were young - just married - and the first owners of their red brick ranch house. They had children and then grandchildren, who gathered in their family room for holidays and learned to swim in their backyard pool.
But when their granddaughter, Jeannie Beidler, approached the home on July 27, 2010, she was confronted by a grim reality. Paramedics, police and Adult Protective Services social workers were on the scene.
"You could smell the stench of urine and feces," she says, standing at the foot of the driveway. "From this point, we already knew what we were about to walk into."
The Jennings' son, Beidler's uncle, was supposed to be caring for them, but it became clear very quickly that something had gone horribly wrong. The Jennings were living without running water or even a fan. James was confined to a chair. His blood pressure was high and he was fading in and out of consciousness. Etta was living on a broken bed crawling with maggots.
Beidler was overwhelmed.
"To think how could this have happened to her? I can't think of a sadder moment in my life or a heavier moment in my life than that," she says.
It's hard to imagine how a family home could sour and rot as the Jennings' had, or how somebody could watch two elderly parents wasting away. But neglect is not uncommon, especially for seniors with dementia and complicated medical conditions who are also at risk for physical and emotional abuse, as well as financial exploitation.
Elder abuse: A crisis ignored
In a study funded by the National Institute of Justice, approximately 1 in 10 seniors reported being abused or neglected in the previous year, and financial exploitation of seniors is estimated to total $2.9 billion dollars a year. Victims of abuse are more than twice as likely to die prematurely and more than four times as likely to be admitted to a nursing home or rehab center.
Kathy Greenlee, Assistant Secretary for Aging at the Department of Health and Human Services and Administrator of the Administration for Community Living, calls elder abuse a crisis. She says efforts to address elder abuse are 40 years behind those of child abuse and 20 years behind those of domestic violence.
"In this society we started and led with children, and we moved to the area of domestic violence and sexual assault," she says. "Each of those fields can contribute and inform what needs to happen with regard to elder abuse. But it certainly hasn't been coordinated and a comprehensive approach to put together all of these different resources and really focus specifically on older people."
Greenlee says elder abuse is a problem that is only going to intensify as the population ages. The number of Maryland and Virginia residents 65 and older is expected to grow by 88 percent in the next 20 years. The same population in the District is set to increase by 58 percent.
"With more older people, we will have more elder abuse," Greenlee says. "That's just the numbers. Now is the time to pay attention."
Addressing the problem
There are significant obstacles to addressing elder abuse. Sometimes victims are dependent on their abusers and fear what will happen if they lose that support. Many have dementia and are not able to testify in court. Dozens of federal, state and local agencies are involved, and sharing data among them has been a challenge.
Advocates struggle with funding as well. In 2010, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Congress passed the Elder Justice Act, which authorized approximately $750 million dollars in funding. But Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition - says advocates are still waiting for lawmakers to release the money. He says, in the meantime, many local agencies that investigate elder abuse are underfunded and struggle to keep up with the calls they receive.
"The effort now is to enhance reporting across the board," he says. "But the problem is if you do that too well and you don't have the resources, then you're really creating a difficult problem that was unintended."
Beidler has had to work through many difficult problems of her own. The day of the intervention, paramedics rushed her grandfather to the hospital, and her grandmother followed later that evening. Both were malnourished and suffering from dementia.
After a couple of weeks in the hospital, James and Etta Jennings were stable enough to be transferred to a nursing home near Beidler's house in Charlottesville. They died within a couple of years, but Beidler says she was grateful they were able to live out their remaining days in comfort.
Beidler ended up resigning from her job in order to manage their health and legal battles. Her uncle had cashed thousands of dollars in checks from her grandmother, leaving the Jennings deeply in debt, with many accounts in arrears.
Beidler took control of their finances and, over several months, was able to settle their debts. She sold their house for a fraction of its previous worth, and she worked with a prosecutor to build a case against her uncle, who pleaded guilty to two counts of abuse or neglect of an incapacitated adult. He was incarcerated for a little less than three years.
Beidler says, looking back, there were people who could have intervened earlier: police who had been called weeks before and even the cashier at the convenience store who cashed her grandmother's checks.
"Don't ignore that pit in your stomach that something isn't right," she says. "Don't minimize your place."
Beidler says it's a matter of looking out for abuse, and choosing not to look away when you find it.
[Music: "La Maison" by Yann Tiersen from Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain]
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