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Elder Abuse in Ethnic Communities

One of the major reasons why elder abuse is difficult to track is under-reporting: victims of abuse are reluctant to come forward out of fear, shame, or embarrassment. And in ethnic and immigrant communities, this factor is only magnified due to the insular culture of many such groups.

Recently activists and city officials in Merced, home to a large Hmong population, have sought to address the issue of elder abuse and undertake its prevention. What they learn may help mitigate cultural barriers to communication and help fight a phenomenon that hurts the most vulnerable among us, no matter which community we belong to. California's Hmong community, both in Merced and in other cities like Sacramento and Fresno, is a good place to start in coming to grips with elder abuse. In conjunction with the city police department and DA's office, Merced's Healthy House and the Valley Crisis Center are applying for a $350,000 federal grant to study exploitation of seniors in Hmong neighborhoods. Armed with information, they hope to successfully fight pernicious patterns of elder abuse that are often concealed from authorities.

So far, the project looks like it's equipped to navigate cultural subtleties and connect with the community. According to Paula Yang, the marketing and program coordinator at Healthy House, the risk of elder abuse grows when the younger generation forgets its roots and internalizes the values of dominant popular culture, with negative consequences. Senior citizens are then more likely to be mistreated by children, grandchildren, or other relatives or neighbors who don't understand or care about traditional respect for elders and family.

Family is a positive value that should be upheld, yet victims of elder abuse in ethnic and immigrant communities are often too afraid to report exploitation over the presumption of shame that comes over their own family name. Yang is working with residents of Hmong neighborhoods, especially elderly widows who are more likely to be at risk for both financial and sexual abuse, in the hope of overcoming feelings of shame. No family - and no ethnic community - should be afraid to confront elder abuse. The greatest shame, after all, is to allow such dishonorable crimes to continue unpunished.

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