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Elder Shelter Provides Sanctuary From Abuse


One in 10 elderly Americans experiences some form of abuse or neglect, according to the National Council on Aging. That can be physical injuries, emotional assaults, willful deprivation, financial exploitation. Victims often have to leave their homes for care, then risk being preyed upon again if they return.

But as Rachel Gotbaum reports, the country's first elder abuse shelter provides a sanctuary, a path back home and a model for others.

RACHEL GOTBAUM, BYLINE: Janet Jones lives in a spare one-bedroom apartment in this housing project in Coney Island, Brooklyn. There's little in the way of furniture. But she says, for her, this place is paradise.

JANET JONES: I've lived in this apartment for many, many moons, I tell you, many moons - I'll tell you.

GOTBAUM: Do you like living here?

JONES: Yes. Yes, I love living here.

GOTBAUM: What do you like about it?

JONES: I know all the people. That I do know.

GOTBAUM: Jones is in her 80s and is mostly bedridden. Her daughter-in-law and granddaughter were helping to take care of her. It turns out they were also stealing from her.

JONES: I had a stroke, and my daughter-in-law was taking my money. My granddaughter was involved in it, too. She was taking my money.

GOTBAUM: For two years, Jones' daughter-in-law bought limited amounts of food and supplies and then pocketed the rest of the money. A home health aide noticed that Jones looked malnourished.

GLENDALEE OLIVERA: It would be $19,200 that was taken from Ms. Jones.

GOTBAUM: From her family?

OLIVERA: From her family, yes.

JONES: That's Glendalee Olivera. She's with the Weinberg Center for Elder Justice. She says Janet Jones's case is typical.

OLIVERA: It's not strangers, what people would like to think. It's people that they love and trust. That is the dynamic of elder abuse.

GOTBAUM: And, says Olivera, that's one reason elder abuse cases are underreported.

OLIVERA: If an older adult is abused by a family member, it's so much more complicated because you're not dealing with a stranger. There is shame. There's guilt. There is still the love and wanting to protect that person from being in trouble, so they're less likely to want to report.

GOTBAUM: Older victims of abuse often cycle through the hospital and then go back home again, where they continue to be preyed upon. Olivera says she didn't want that to happen to Janet Jones.

OLIVERA: It was very clear that Ms. Jones wanted to return to her apartment. That was her primary goal since the day I met her, is that she wanted to come back home. But we needed to make sure that was done in a safe way.

GOTBAUM: Jones was sent to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, where the Weinberg Center created the country's very first shelter for victims of elder abuse.

DAN REINGOLD: What we're trying to do, first and foremost, is to take elder abuse out of the shadows.

GOTBAUM: That's Dan Reingold. He runs the Hebrew Home.

REINGOLD: The second thing that we've done is to use an existing resource, which in our case is a nonprofit long-term care facility, and shelter victims who need to be in a safe place. The third thing that we are trying to do is to use the legal system to empower victims of abuse.

GOTBAUM: When it was first created in 2005, Reingold and his team planned to house the shelter in its very own section of the nursing home, but they soon realized they needed a virtual shelter where victims live as nursing home residents.

REINGOLD: Somebody was coming in with dementia - had been exploited. Somebody was coming in in relatively good shape and didn't need skilled nursing but needed the trauma-informed support. We had one client who came in. The son was a drug addict, and he ended up selling his mother's prosthetic leg on the street for drug money. We had to fit her with a new prosthetic leg, teach her how to walk again.

GOTBAUM: For seniors who want to return home, the Weinberg Center provides legal help to make sure that when that happens people are going back to a safe place, like Janet Jones. She was able to return to her Coney Island apartment after shelter lawyers got her a court appointed guardian and also an order of protection against her daughter-in-law, the one who was stealing from her.

JONES: You know, I'm happy to be home, I'll tell you that. I'm happy to be home.

GOTBAUM: And she says she's forgiven her granddaughter.

OLIVERA: My granddaughter only did what her mother told her to do, and that was to take my money. I love my granddaughter, you know.

GOTBAUM: Since it's opened its doors, the Weinberg Center has become a model for some 21 other elder abuse shelters across the country. The staff works closely with police, local judges, health care providers and even apartment doormen to educate them and help them identify seniors who may be victims of abuse and who may need help.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Before coming to New Hampshire, NHPR health reporter Rachel Gotbaum was at WBUR Boston and at KQED-FM in San Francisco. She has also worked as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. Gotbaum has filed stories for NPR, The New York Times, Marketplace, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Gotbaum earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley. She is an avid fan of food and cooking.