Faith Communities and Elder Abuse Prevention

By Kerry Burnight, PhD

I saw a red-wing blackbird on Sunday – a fond reminder that, notwithstanding the East Coast snow that seems to have forgotten what month it is, Spring is upon us. And, not a moment too soon! In April, we celebrate several important religious events in the Judeo-Christian calendar. It is a reminder that the faith community plays an important role in our elder abuse prevention efforts.

Here are some ideas from the Ageless Alliance staff and our friends throughout the country:

As America ages, so too do the members of religious congregations.  Religion plays an important role in the lives of many older Americans.  Just look around any church, synagogue or mosque and count the older people there.  Religious leaders are trusted by seniors and are turned to in times of crisis.  But, are they prepared to effectively assist someone who reveals elder abuse at home or in their nursing home?  How do religious congregations send the message that abuse of elders and vulnerable adults will not be tolerated?  How do they make it safe for members to get help?

  1. Print out copies of the Red Flags of Elder Abuse flyers and place them in an area where people can pick one up.
  2. Print out copies of the Protect Yourself! flyer and set them out, too.
  3. Ask your religious leader to give a talk on Grandparent’s Day (first Sunday of September) and to include themes of respect, dignity and freedom from abuse.
  4. Invite a speaker from Adult Protective Services or the Long-term Care Ombudsman to talk to your congregation’s Senior Group, Caregivers Group, Social Action group, etc.
  5. Train all of your staff and volunteers who visit shut-ins (i.e. the homebound or ill) on the warning signs of abuse and neglect and how to report suspected abuse (religious leaders may be required to report elder abuse – check your state’s elder abuse statute to find out).

Several years ago on my way to work, I encountered a fellow congregation member on the sidewalk outside my office.  After expressing delight at the serendipity of our meeting and catching up for a few minutes, I started to go inside to my office.  To my surprise, she followed me.  “Oh,” I inquired, “are you here to see someone?”  “I’m here to see you,” she said, “the pastor said I needed to talk to you about how my son is treating me.”  We talked and then called Adult Protective Services together.  She received the help she needed and the abuse stopped.  How grateful I was to that pastor for recognizing the warning signs of what turned out to be serious financial elder abuse!   It wasn’t exactly a miracle, but it was a mitzvah.

May all elders be safe.  Happy Spring, everyone!

For further resources on this topic visit the National Center on Elder Abuse.

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