Elder abuse is a devastating but often overlooked problem that can cause emotional as well as physical pain and suffering, shattered trust, financial ruin and even an increased risk of dying. The tragedy of elder abuse was recently brought home by 90-year-old screen legend Mickey Rooney in his dramatic Congressional testimony describing his own experiences.
“Recent studies suggest that more than one in seven older adults is victimized each year,” said the USC Davis School of Gerontology’s Kathleen Wilber, who is the Mary Pickford Professor of Gerontology. “Sadly, a recent summary of elder abuse interventions found that there is little evidence that efforts to prevent or address abuse work.”
To help determine what will work, Wilber recently received a grant from the Archstone Foundation to study the effectiveness of California’s four elder abuse forensic centers. The forensic center is a model that brings together a team of elder abuse specialists from health, adult public service, law enforcement and the legal system needed to address the most complex cases of abuse.
With funding from the UniHealth Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, Wilber and her team have spent the last few years evaluating the Los Angeles County Elder Abuse Forensic Center, which is led by geriatrician Diana Homeier of the Keck School of Medicine, as well as the overall effectiveness of the forensic center model.
The new Archstone Foundation grant will allow the team to expand their work to pursue additional evaluations of the Orange County, San Francisco and San Diego centers, and will provide funding for the Los Angeles County Elder Abuse Forensic Center.
“Comparing and contrasting the work of four different centers will give us key insights into the model and help us inform the field about basic issues such as what a forensic center is, how it is structured, how it functions, as well as addressing the central question: ‘Does it make a difference?’ ” Wilber said. “This is vital information for a number of programs across the U.S. and internationally that are interested in replicating this model.”
The team’s effort is truly interdisciplinary, with Wilber working closely with Homeier and the center’s special project manager, Kelly Fujikawa, to examine all facets of the program.
Wilber also credits the work done by her evaluation team members, including USC Davis’ Zach Gassoumis, Julia Wysong, Melanie Gironda, Mike Nichol, Elizabeth Swartz, Jeanine Yonashiro and recent doctoral graduate Adria Navarro, who wrote her dissertation on the model.
According to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, there are more than 7 million Americans aged 60 and older who become victims of abuse or neglect every year. But very little of this abuse is reported, making elder abuse a largely hidden crime. Many older adult victims also suffer from isolation and low levels of social support, which makes it more difficult for them to reach out for help.
“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney said in his testimony, accusing his stepson of withholding medicine and food as well as selling off Rooney’s Oscar. “Above all, when a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”
Stories like Rooney’s propel Wilber and her team to continue searching for solutions that will improve services and systems across the board.
“What we do is very important as there is great interest nationally and internationally in learning more about how this model works and if/how effective it is,” Wilber said. “Our research will help build the evidence on how effectively these teams achieve important outcomes such as stopping the abuse, prosecuting the perpetrators and improving the safety of the victim.”