Sonoma County, heart of California's wine country, attracts not only tourists, but also retirees to its beautiful hilled landscapes. Yet as home to a higher-than-average population of senior citizens (23% as opposed to 17% statewide), Sonoma County is also no stranger to the tragic phenomenon of elder abuse, a growing problem throughout our state.
According to a recent article by Santa Rosa Press-Democrat journalist Martin Espinoza, Sonoma County has experienced an upsurge of elder abuse cases called in to Adult Protective Services (APS) and law enforcement, with an increase of 70% over the past five years. In 2014 alone, the county had over 4,400 cases, and this could be just the tip of the iceberg: local officials state that only 1 in 23 cases is reported to authorities.
Elder abuse can encompass all kinds of wrongdoing against seniors, from neglect and physical abuse to financial and even sexual crimes. Neglect is the most common form of elder abuse in Sonoma County, comprising some 50% of reports made to APS, stated Diane Kaljian, county director of adult and aging services. In some instances neglect may be self-inflicted by the elder, who for various reasons may not be able to care for him or herself. Neglect is all too frequently committed by bad-faith caretakers and even family members, and we should keep in mind that its results can be no less horrifying than active abuse.
In addition to the 50% of cases attributed to neglect, 25% in Sonoma County are classified as financial abuse. Elder financial abuse is a crime that robs Americans of multiple billions every year, and it is often accompanied by undue influence, fraud, and other malfeasance. Another 25% of county cases come under the category of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Many such stories, however, contain overlapping forms of abuse, Kaljian notes.
Why is elder abuse so underreported? Many seniors themselves are confused or too embarrassed to speak out, and they may not even know where to turn for help. Victims may not report neglectful or abusive family members out of a sense of shielding their loved ones. We must also consider the reality of fear: a family, though a dysfunctional one, will be broken up, and the elder potentially placed in a nursing facility away from the familiarity of home.
Sonoma County is now devoting additional resources to address these factors and raise awareness of elder abuse, a crime impermissible under any circumstances. Let's all work to protect our seniors - don't be afraid to speak out against elder abuse and prevent further harm to the most vulnerable members of our families and communities.