Vulnerable Elders At Risk

As individuals progress through life stages, age chronologically, and anticipate the so-called Golden Years they tend to believe that they will have reached a period in their lives where they can slow down, possibly retire and relax, and enjoy life more readily than in the past. If, however, failing health ensues or sickness prevails, such hopes can be quickly dashed, and life's course of events can rapidly change. For elder individuals who become frail, sick, and unable to be fully functional of their own accord, they may be in need of continuous and supervised care-giving.

For those who enter a rehabilitative center, assisted living facility, or full-fledged nursing home, the expectation is receipt of professional and skilled services with the accompanying supervision essential to the situation. This, however, is not always the case and, consequently, criminal victimization can ensue when these expectations fall short.

Jennifer Coldren, of Rome, New York, understands the reality that can ensue as a consequence. In May 2005, her grandmother entered a nursing home in New York and, a year later, she became the victim of crime. At age 90, her grandmother was raped by a 49-year-old male worker in the facility. She was able to hit the call button for assistance, and the police, along with the Medicaid Fraud Unit, responded. The elderly victim had to undergo the medical procedures of a rape kit as a result of the crime.

Until law enforcement officers could obtain factual evidence of the crime, the alleged perpetrator was not under arrest. Following the incident, some five days later, the suspect confessed to the crime and was arrested.

Within two weeks of the crime, the victim became very depressed and stated she wanted to die. She subsequently had a stroke which produced a limited ability for her to talk and also contributed to development of dementia and full blown Alzheimer's disease.

Learning about her grandmother's victimization from her own mother, Ms. Coldren was shocked. "I never, in a million years, expected what came out of my mother's mouth. I never imagined something so horrible could happen at a nursing home."

Ms. Coldren explains that, in New York, a background check of a worker is not required for one working in a hospital but is required if working in a nursing home. Ms. Coldren's grandmother resided in a nursing home that was connected to the hospital. The perpetrator of this crime had worked in the hospital and transferred over to the nursing home. Once he began working in the nursing home, he had to undergo a background check but was able to work on the floors, accompanied by a partner, until the investigation was completed. The night of the incident, his partner left him alone to take a short break and, while she was gone, the rape occurred.

It was later discovered that the offender had a criminal record and had served time in prison. Ms. Coldren also learned that the perpetrator had a previous accusation against him for touching another elderly person, and she was outraged by this news.

She became even angrier when she heard that the perpetrator acknowledged that he had sex with her grandmother but claimed the victim instigated it. He indicated he wanted her to understand how it felt to be in charge because, as a child, he had been abused.

The victim was aware of what had happened to her, and she continued to be very depressed, cried a lot, and her dementia worsened. Though she was unable to talk in a normal fashion, due to her stroke, she articulated small sentences and described her attacker as the "bad man."

Nine months after the rape occurred, Ms. Coldren continued to be upset about the incident and resigned from her part-time job. She removed her grandmother from the nursing home and brought her to her own home to personally care for her. The victim required care 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Ms. Coldren received training from the nursing home so she would be able to care for her grandmother. "I didn't know what help I could get, and it was all new to me," says Ms. Coldren. Living in her granddaughter's home, the victim seemed to show some improvement. "She got to the point she was smiling and laughing. My mom and I were happy," says Ms. Coldren.

Victimization of the elderly produces both primary and secondary victimization. Though Ms. Coldren's grandmother was the direct victim of the crime, the impact on the family - as in this case - produced secondary victimization. Initially, family members are generally in shock, emotionally upset, confused, and, over time, can become very angry. In institutional settings, family members believe their loved ones will be safe with supervision, and they do not imagine their loved ones will become victims of crime by perpetrators who prey upon their vulnerabilities. "What we felt living this nightmare... disbelief, fear, numbness, pain, anger, bitterness, shock, outrage, and our hearts broken. We also shed a thousand tears for her," says Ms. Coldren.

As a result of her grandmother's victimization, Ms. Coldren is committed to implementing changes in the system. "I don't want any other family or elderly person to have to go through what we went through," says Ms. Coldren.

In July 2007, Ms. Coldren travelled to Washington, D.C. and testified before the U. S. Senate Committee on Aging and addressed Chairman Herb Kohl and other distinguished members of the committee. She relayed the story of her elderly grandmother's victimization and the impact it had on the victim as well as herself and her family.

"I ask the committee, for a moment, to put yourselves in our shoes. How would you feel if this happened to your mother, grandmother, or someone else you love? We need to protect our aging loved ones who can't protect themselves because if we don't, who will? Our hope is something good will come out of this nightmare for us and that, together, we can come up with a solution for a growing problem so that this never happens to another elderly person and their families again. We cannot change the past or what happened to my grandmother, but we can change things for future generations so no one will ever know the fear and pain my grandmother and family has endured through all this," testified Ms. Coldren.

There is a vital need for advocacy for the elderly. "We protect our children but not our elderly. There are no safeguards as far as I am concerned," says Ms. Coldren. Her proactive efforts demonstrate the urgency to enact additional and enhanced legislation to protect vulnerable and elderly people from becoming victims of crime.

Law enforcement must remain vigilant and keenly attuned to the safety risks facing senior citizens. Ongoing dialogue combined with legislative changes and realistic approaches must unite to ensure the continued safety of the elderly population.