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Elder abuse reports rising in Pierce County

The reports range from a high profile case in which an accountant stole more than $150,000 from an elderly widow, to a call from a person worried about her neighbor's hygiene.

The term "elder abuse" covers a lot of territory, but most often it's a case of a family needing help with simple basic needs, according to Pierce County Office on Aging Supervisor Kathy Hass.

By the end of July, the Pierce County Office on Aging had received 11 reports of suspected elder neglect or abuse. That's the same number reported in all of last year, and Hass predicts that, with a growing population of elderly, the numbers will continue to increase.

Reports come from a variety of sources.

"It's a true mixture of family members, medical professionals, law enforcement, social workers, nurses and the benefit specialist in the office," said Hass.

Most often, it's a case of a person or his family being overwhelmed by household and personal care chores or finances.

"They run out of money," said Hass. "They can't buy medications. Their dentures break and they can't afford to fix them. Their eyeglasses break and they can't afford new ones."

Another frequent scenario is a family member stretched too thin by the demands of keeping up with housework, and the daily medical and personal care needs of an ailing relative.

If there is a suspicion of severe abuse, a social worker is sent to the home. But if the report is less urgent, a worker calls to make an appointment --- an interview the elderly person can refuse.

While her office can handle about a fourth of the calls, social workers from Long Term Support are involved in the other 75 percent, said Hass.

"We try to take the real gentle approach and not be accusatory," she said. Rather than point to problems, workers outline the services available.

In those cases, "We don't get into an abuse discussion," said Hass.

If it's a case of self-neglect or of a caregiver who is overwhelmed, just offering services can solve the problem, said Hass.

"Chore service is the big one," she said. Other services include home-delivered meals, assistance in paying for medications and one-time payments to fix dental work or hearing aids.

Sometimes the department provides temporary shelter. One recent case involved a woman who was homeless because she couldn't afford the deposit for subsidized housing.

While occasionally the abuse is deliberate, often it's not, said Hass.

"So many people get in a situation where they can't take care of themselves," she said. Many times, the problem can be solved by providing services in the home.

And, she said, an important part of the process is self-determination: "They have a right to live that way -- accept help or turn us down."

The phone number for the office on aging is (715) 273-6780.