Elder abuse in the state of Minnesota has been on the rise in recent years, but why has mistreatment of the elderly became an under-reported phenomenon.
Consider the trust of an elder or court to sign over their autonomy to a stranger for guardianship.
The trust that these guardians, social workers, age specialists and family members will take care of them.
But what happens when that trust is repaid through financial, physical and emotional manipulation and abuse.
Anoka County. Coon Rapids, Minnesota. An 83-year-old man is pleading for help with pain-ridden grunts as he lays bare in a dingy hospital bed with untreated sores and coated in his bodily fluids.
Heritage House Assisted Living in St. Paul. A physically feeble 78-year-old woman is forced to lay in a deathbed where moments ago she was sexually abused and assaulted by a trusted caregiver.
Some of Minnesota's elderly are spending their last days, months and years - exploited, manipulated and ignored.
In 2017, in the state of Minnesota, there were reports of over 25,000 allegations of elder abuse or neglect in the state of Minnesota.
What’s more astonishing is less than 5 percent of these cases were investigated.
Elder abuse is any physical, sexual, or psychological abuse of an older person (generally age 60 – 65 years and older), and also encompasses neglect, abandonment, and financial exploitation.
1 in 10 older persons will be a victim of elder abuse in their lifetime. For those struggling with dementia or Alzheimer's, the susceptibility increases to 1 in 5.
This tragic phenomenon has escalated in the state of Minnesota, as studies showed that over a six-year span, maltreatment allegations self-reported by providers rose dramatically from 3,600 in 2010 to more than 24,000 in 2016.
The U.S. Census Bureau expects the population ages 65 and older to nearly double from 43.1 million in 2012 to 83.7 million in 2050.
The current landscape seems to be failing this generation of elders, but is there hope that the environment can improve for future elders?
According to a 2017 study done by WalletHub, Minnesota ranks top-20 in elder abuse/neglect prevalence among the 50 states - but rank 36th in terms of resources and 19th regarding total protection of victims.
The question remains, how can the State create a safe emotional and physical landscape for elders?
Executive Director of Minnesota Elder Justice Center. Amanda Vickstrom notes that elder abuse can be overt or subtle, but early stages of abuse occur at the official passing of guardianship rights or when one is deemed incapable of self-care.
Guardianship derives from the state’s parens patriae power, its duty to act as a parent for those considered too vulnerable to care for themselves.
The duty of guardianship, when in the right hands - means an obligation to care, provide and protect. The duty of guardianship in the wrong hands allow abusers to exploit, manipulate and irreparable harm those they swear to protect.
“Guardianship in the hands of abusers allow them to manipulate a victim’s financial situation, create an environment of physical or emotional neglect and ultimately deprive them of ability to make autonomous decisions,” said Vickstrom.
Whether court ordered or through one’s own volition, the powers given to guardians are often overreaching. The ability to sell a person’s home and personal property, to enter into contracts on their behalf or even forgo all medical treatment.
Ultimately, guardianship in the wrong hands - creates an exploitative financial vulnerability for the elderly community.
A 2016 study in NCVRW Resource Guide, that older adults lost $2.9 million dollars through financial exploitation, and that elders with cognitive disabilities are twice as likely to experience financial loss.
“There’s an unfortunate belief that just because some is incapable of caring for themselves and loses their autonomy, that they are prime for exploitation,” said Vickstrom.
When the Health Department found that out of 25,226 allegations, that 3.3 percent of them were investigated, the heat has been on for crackdown and reforms for assisted living homes statewide.
One of the people leading the charge for change is Senator Amy Klobuchar.
“This treatment of vulnerable seniors is unacceptable,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote in an open letter.
Watonwan County has a senior citizen population of roughly 19.8%. In the most recent report by Minnesota Department of Health out of the 13 reported cases of elder abuse in the county, all 13 of them were investigated.
The Minnesota Department of Health conducted surveys of two assisted living homes in the Watonwan Area - Prairie View at Good Samaritan headed by Ursula Hagstrand and Luther Memorial Home directed by Dawn Campbell.
In the two surveys, both Prairie View (90 pages) and Luther Memorial (124 pages) received ‘A’ rankings, which indicates acknowledgment of compliance with the Department of Health.
To have two compliant senior assisted living homes in one county is luxury most in the state don't have.
Watonwan County is full of intimate small towns where family networks and low-stress environments can reduce adverse effects on elders. However, the rurality of Southern Minnesota can create many challenges too.
“There are challenges for the elderly in rural communities when you factor in accessibility, transportation, and resources,” said Vickstrom.
Vickstrom notes that elder abuse victims in smaller, more intimate communities may feel ashamed to come forward in fear of consequences to their loved ones, as well as social stigmas.
In light of all the statistics and rhetoric, there is a balancing act of attitudes that seem to be geared toward the elderly community.
The balancing act of revering our elders because of age and wisdom, but also exploiting and abusing them because of their age and vulnerability.
Amanda Vickstrom simply had this to say:
“Age, the loss of physical and mental ability doesn’t mean you lose your rights to be treated as a human.”