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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

South Carolina Office for the Study of Aging Experts Help Fight Elder Abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that one in 10 people over 60 experiences elder mistreatment (i.e., abuse or neglect), which translates to nearly six million cases every year. According to Dr. Macie Smith, program development and training manager for the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health’s Office for the Study of Aging (OSA), this number is actually much higher due to under reporting. And as the U.S. population continues to age, this number will only increase over time.

“Elder abuse is one of the most overlooked public health crises in our country,” Dr. Smith says. “There are potentially thousands, if not millions, more cases than those that are currently reported. The present generation of the elderly population tends to be a silent one; moreover, 90 percent of abuse and neglect cases are committed by family members or others in positions of trust, such as staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, so there is an element of fear of retaliation.”

Due to their cognitive decline, people living with dementia are at an even higher risk. “Families and caregivers don’t know how to handle some of those challenging behaviors,” Dr. Smith says. The cost of caregiving in the U.S. (i.e., over $220 million annually) is another challenge that Dr. Smith emphasizes. “Over 15 million caregivers are providing more than 17 billion hours of unpaid care, and we need to be proactive in getting caregivers the support they need before they reach their breaking point,” she says. “A study conducted by the National Center on Elder Abuse reported that 20 percent of dementia caregivers fear committing abuse. This is alarming and clearly a cry for help.”

Dr. Smith suggests working with policymakers in order to educate them about the effects of chronic caregiving on the aging population and its impact on our society as a whole. “This educational opportunity should hopefully influence policy that will offer additional support for caregivers providing care to those with chronic illnesses” she says. “We need financial support to meet the needs of our most vulnerable population and their caregivers.” As an important first step, OSA and other aging stakeholders have successfully secured a proclamation from Governor Nikki Haley that decrees February as Vulnerable Adult Awareness Month in South Carolina.

Indeed, another problem that the OSA team sees is lack of awareness about elder abuse in general and particularly about available resources. “People just don’t know that there are resources out there that can help them provide care for their loved ones,” says Ms. Brenda Stalzer, who is assistant director and training coordinator for the South Carolina Vulnerable Adult Guardian ad Litem Program (SCVAGAL) with OSA. Some of these resources include waivers for personal care aide services, Healthy Connections Prime (i.e., one professional to manage and coordinate the care and link the services and support for an individual who is 65 years or older and has both Medicaid and Medicare), respite and support groups, and more.

OSA’s SCVAGAL program offers an excellent example of an important resource for this population. The program recruits and trains volunteers to serve as Guardians ad Litem for vulnerable adults who are under the custody of the Department of Social Services—those who have been abused or neglected or exploited—by representing their best interests.

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