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County seeks to curb elderly abuse

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With the growth of the elderly population in the county comes the growth of potential abuse.

An Elder Abuse Awareness report delivered to the Washington County Board of Commissioners July 15, showed that protection assessments for adults have grown from 220 in 2005 to 365 in 2006 and 340 in 2007.

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By far, the most reported allegations in 2007 were for financial exploitation, which accounted for more than 40 percent of the reports, said Deborah Tulloch, supervisor of adult protection services for the county.

Self-neglect accounts for 20 percent of the reports, she said. This is common among the elderly who don't wish to have strangers in their home, or don't wish to pay to have someone perform services that they feel they should be able to perform themselves.

Other forms of abuse are emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Of the 340 calls reporting vulnerable adult maltreatment in 2007, 116 were investigated. Most of the cases are a family problem, Tulloch said, as 80 percent of the abusers are a spouse, adult child or other relative.

It may not be simple to define a vulnerable adult, Tulloch said, as it doesn't simply apply to someone who is older, but rather must meet other criteria, such as living in an elder facility or receiving licensed home care services.

Then there are "functional vulnerable adults" who have mental or physical disabilities that keep them from taking care of themselves.

Studies done elsewhere report that 84 percent of elder abuse cases are never reported, Tulloch said. There is no federal funding dedicated to these protective services, so the state and the county have to pick up the tab.

It is expected that cases will continue to grow as the elderly population grows, Tulloch said.

Public awareness is key, Tulloch said, and the county commissioners told her they would like to suggest a number of groups that would benefit from hearing her presentation, including people in assistant living or other senior living settings.

At the same time, Commissioner Dick Stafford noted that it is a sensitive topic, as it can be a fine line between the government sticking its nose into family business and helping to protect an elderly person.

Tulloch pointed out signs of physical abuse, such as bruising; signs of financial exploitation, such as unusual bank activity of missing personal belongings; or signs of self-neglect, such as signs of inability to manage personal care or homemaking skills.

Neglect investigations can be difficult, Tulloch said, as they can be very time consuming and complex. They may also result in civil action, rather than criminal action.

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