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The Elder Justice Act: a big step towards protecting older Americans.

In October 2010, I heard some shocking news while I was at a breakfast forum hosted by the Northern Virginia Aging Network. With many members of the Virginia General Assembly in attendance, I listened to speakers as they discussed the state legislative platform for 2011, which identifies the legislative priorities, budget priorities, and ongoing concerns for the aging in our state. The platform seemed ambitious but reasonable. Instead, what grabbed my attention was something said as an aside by the moderator, Peggy Fox of WUSA News.

She mentioned to the audience a story she had reported about a nursing home abuse case in Arlington, Virginia, probably one of the largest nursing home abuse cases in history. Nearly a dozen employees at this nursing home had been indicted, and two of them were already convicted. The FBI had used a surveillance camera in a patient's room (with the permission of his family), and with the evidence on videotape, they were able to indict 11 employees on charges ranging from neglect and forgery to assault and battery. The most serious charge was against a male registered nurse who was apparently caught on tape holding a pillow over the patient's face.

This nursing home abuse case has received only minimal attention from the press. (Thank you to Peggy Fox for her excellent coverage of the case.) I'm a news junkie, read two newspapers a day, and peruse a number of news sites on the web, but I had missed this story. Where is the moral outrage, I wondered. If this abuse had happened in a day care center for children, the country would be up in arms. Unfortunately, the issue of elderly abuse seems to fly under the national radar.

Few of us would ever desire to live in a nursing home. Most of us want to live at home for as long as possible among our friends and family and continue to be active, healthy, and contributing members of our community. Ironically, it is also the less expensive option for the government compared with providing institutionalized care for seniors. Government services aimed at seniors to help them stay in their homes include nutrition programs, transportation, and in-home care, as well as programs to provide respite for the caregivers. I was pleased to learn that funding for such services is a top budget priority in the Northern Virginia Aging Network 2011 legislative platform. Innovative new technologies, such as BeClose, are another necessary component in enabling seniors to age in place.

Unfortunately, not all elderly today can remain in their homes as they age. Nursing homes do have their place in our society, and there are certainly some good ones. But, whether it happens in the home or in an institution, the issue of elderly abuse cannot continue to be swept under the rug. Currently, one in nine persons over the age of 60 is a victim of elderly abuse. Whether they have suffered from abuse, neglect, or exploitation, the end result is the same: they have three times the risk of dying prematurely. The shame is that elder abuse is often perpetuated by a victim's own family, and they are often dependent on their abusers for basic, life-sustaining care. Unfortunately, this is the only form of family violence for which the federal government has provided virtually no resources, leaving it to the states and local governments to try to combat it.

The good news is that the federal government took a step towards changing that with the national Elder Justice Act, which was signed into law on March 23, 2010. It authorizes federal spending of approximately $757 million over 4 years and will bring funding and resources to support the efforts at the state and local levels to stop elderly abuse and to promote the safety and well-being of older adults and their families. The question now is whether the Elder Justice Act will be fully funded by Congress in the budget.

At the table with me at the breakfast forum was Thomas "Tag" Greason, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. I was appreciative of his attending the breakfast and his keen interest in the issues facing older adults. We asked Tag whether he thought the Virginia state legislature would pass a resolution memorializing Congress to fund fully the Elder Justice Act. He predicted that the resolution would pass but questioned its singular impact. What is important, he told me, was that we all press Congress with the same message: Fully fund the Elder Justice Act. Failure to do so will mean the continued abuse and exploitation of older adults. And that is simply not acceptable.

I don't think the issue of funding for the Elder Justice Act is so much political as simply one of priorities. Is the safety and protection of older Americans important to us or not? I think it is and that's what I'll be putting in my letter to my congressman.

This article was first published on the author's blog at Corresponding author: Frances Roberts Willard, BeClose, 8150 Leesburg Pike, Suite 1401, Vienna, Virginia 22182 (e-mail:
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Author:Willard, Frances Roberts
Publication:Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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