Attacking elderly abuse

Attacking elderly abuse

Paul Chance

Attacking Elderly Abuse

The last thing 68-year-old Vera Dixon did was lie down in a corner of her son’s kitchen, curl up in the fetal position and die. When the Austin, Texas, police arrived at the scene, they found a vacuum cleaner bag wrapped around her nearly naked body, diaper-fashion. They also found most of the apartment littered with human excrement. but no sooner had the police arrested Dixon’s son, Joe, than they were forced to release him. Though his mother had starved to death, there was no statute under which he could be charged.

Texas blood boiled. Investigating police sergeant Dusty Hesskew complained that people who mistreat their pets are subject to punishment, but a person can let his mother starve without fear of prosecution. An editorial in the Austin American-Stateman railed against an act that was “immoral, shameful, indecent, cruel and uncivilized,” yet legal. State legislators promised to take swift, effective action to close the gap in the law. “Normal people,” ranted one state legislator, “don’t go around and let their loved ones die without doing anything about it.”

There was a public outcry for laws that would provide stiff penalties for those who live with their parents but do not provide adequate care for them. But cooler heads doubted that the law-and-order approach would really help. Such legislation might, for example, discourage children from letting their parents live with them at all. And what would happen to the elderly if their children were jailed for neglect? Would they really be better off in a state nursing home, alone in the company of strangers? Or would that merely subject them to another kind of abuse?

The Austin chapter of the Gray Panthers convinced State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, head of the Senate Select Subcommittee on Elder Abuse, that the legislature should study the subject thoroughly before passing laws that might make matters worse. The Gray Panthers, with support from private and state organizations, then asked community psychologist Jeffrey Anderson and human-services planner John Theiss, both with the Texas Department of Human Services, for help. The two agreed to conduct a survey of professionals who were likely to have firsthand experience with elderly victims and to report their findings to the subcommittee.

The researchers sent a questionnaire to 4,300 nurses, physicians, law enforcement officers, justices of the peace, directors of senior centers and home health-care facilities, social workers, bankers and judges across the state. Of the 1,653 persons who returned the questionnaire, 769 knew of instances of abuse or neglect that had occurred during the previous 12 to 16 months. Almost half of those who had worked with mistreated old people had seen more than five cases.

Of particular interest to those concerned with legislation were the experts’ answers to questions about the causes of neglect and steps required to deal with it. Alcohol and drug abuse by the caretaker was the most commonly cited cause, followed by pressures on the caretaker. Interestingly, those who had relatively little experience with mistreated elderly were more likely to blame alcohol and drug abuse, while more experienced professionals put greater emphasis on the burden carried by the caretaker. In other words, the more experienced professionals attribute abuse and neglect to bad situations, not bad people.

This isn’t to say that elder abuse and neglect never involve criminal misconduct, but the main villains seem to be the mental, physical and emotional burdens of caring for feeble, often uncooperative old people. Vera Dixon, it turns out, was a case in point. Her physician, Peggy Russell, believes that Vera and Joe were both victims. The elder Dixon was confused, incontinent, blind and uncooperative. She refused to eat and would remove food from her mouth and hide it in a pocket. “She needed to have everything done for her,” says Russell. “She had to be dressed, washed, fed, cleaned up after she soiled herself–everything.”

Vera’s condition deteriorated rapidly, Russell says, and it would have been a challenge for anyone to take care of her, let alone a young working man with no help. If he had known more about social services, he might have been able to get some assistance. But as Russell points out, “Young adults seldom seem to know how to do that.” Joe Vargo, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman who covered the Dixon case, agrees. “Joe Dixon was more or less a victim of circumstances. There really wasn’t much he could do about it.”

Many of the experts who completed the survey suggested that punitive legislation would not solve the problem, and might even be detrimental. “I’m afraid,” wrote one nurse, “that if there is legislation on children’s responsibility for parents, you may see more physical and verbal abuse due to pressure put on these families.” The experts did feel, however, that various kinds of social services were helpful. For instance, to relieve the burden on caregivers, they suggested that respite care (in which someone such as a practical nurse looks after the elderly person for part of the day) be provided.

Adult protective services, in which someone (a social worker, perhaps) investigates suspected cases of abuse or neglect and helps those involved get the services they require, was also popular. And the experts recommended social casework and a hotline that older people who are mistreated could call for help. The services the experts considered most likely to help were, unfortunately, among those they had the greatest difficulty obtaining.

The Anderson and Theiss report had a pronounced impact on the lawmakers. “We used the study as ammunition,” says Charlotte Flynn of the Austin Gray Panthers. “We took it to one legislator who was about to submit a bill that would, among other things, have punished children who neglect their parents, and he withdrew the bill. The study helped people realize that the problem is very complex and isn’t going to be solved by sending people to jail.”

Elliott Naishtat, Barrientos’s legislative assistant, agrees. “We were fortunate to have had some good friends in the Department of Human Services, the Gray Panthers and the University of Texas,” he says, “and they got together and provided information that we could use in writing legislation.” Before the legislature adjourned on June 1 it passed bills that improve or increase the availability of some of the recommended services. For example, the legislators changed the qualifications for adult services so that more people could receive help. “But the biggest impact of our study,” Theiss says, “is not that it produced legislation, but that it sidetracked legislation that, it turns out, might have done more harm than good.”

No one knows for sure whether the new laws will lessen abuse and neglect of the elderly. After all, the information provided by the survey consisted merely of the opinions of experts, and experts can be wrong. But at least the laws that came out of the Texas legislature last spring were based on informed opinion, and not merely anger and good intentions.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group