An elderly woman, debilitated by end-stage Alzheimer’s, is raped in an assisted living facility.

A 71-year-old is put in a locked memory care unit by a relative, who systematically isolates her from other family members and attempts to take control of her finances.

A nursing home resident is wrongly accused of lying and abusing alcohol when she reports the theft of a valuable ring and cash from a locked box in her room.

In each of these real-life cases, the State Ombudsman for Long Term Care stood with the victims to find truth and bring justice. An independent consumer advocate, the ombudsman is authorized through the Older Americans Act to investigate abuse complaints from nursing home residents, other long-term care residential services, home care services and hospitals.

It is everyone’s hope that these inconceivable acts are rare. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The ombudsman’s office saw a 150 percent increase in cases of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of vulnerable elderly from 2015 to 2018. The State Office of Health Facility Complaints reported receiving 400 allegations each week.

Just as with everything, when rarity morphs into common occurrence, sensitivity diminishes. This must not happen when addressing abuse of our elderly. The level of unacceptability of one incident of abuse must be magnified exponentially with each rise in incidents. Only then will our tolerance level remain solidly zero for even one elderly person being raped, robbed or preyed upon.

The “baby boomer” generation will dominate the state’s demographic landscape for years to come. We must create measures to ensure that NO senior citizens are victims of abuse, exploitation or mistreatment.

Elder abuse was identified by the Elder Justice Center as the “next big crime wave” at a 2016 conference at the U of M. Emily Johnson Piper, then Minnesota Department of Human Services commissioner, reported the statewide elder abuse hot line was receiving more than 1,000 tips a week.

At least one in 10 older Americans experience some form of maltreatment, Attorney General Keith Ellison said recently, promoting awareness of the Minnesota Vulnerable Adults Act. The act, passed in the early 1980s, makes employees and volunteers of public and private agencies who care for vulnerable adults (including those who do not provide direct care) mandatory reporters of abuse. Encouraging voluntary reporting, Ellison added the act provides immunity from civil or criminal liability for a good-faith report of abuse.

The 2018 reports on the high number of unresolved elder abuse cases resulted in some legislative action but much more needs to be done.

Current elder protection efforts that need support from legislative leaders include:

• Adding 31 staff members to the State Ombudsman for Long Term Care office and increasing the “boots on the ground” staff of every department which responds to elder abuse reports. These staff increases are necessary to adequately address every report. Currently, Minnesota is one of the lowest in the nation in nursing home bed to state ombudsman staff ratio.

• Providing expanded government oversight of assisted living facilities, or at least establishing a report card process to alert consumers of deficiencies.

• Expanding support statewide for nonprofit attorney organizations that provide free legal aid for low-income seniors who are victimized.

• Establishing requirements for electronic monitoring in nursing facilities and assisted living housing.

• Protecting seniors in supportive housing from termination of services without just cause.

Ensuring the safety and protection of Minnesota’s elders is vital to their living fulfilled lives. Even if we successfully avert the dire predictions of shortages of resources and services needed by the ballooned “baby boomer” generation, if our elderly do not feel safe wherever they are living among us, we have failed.

- An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to: editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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