Senior Lifestyles

Secrets behind the silence: Advocating an interfaith response to elder abuse

Photo Courtesy Of Protecting Our Elders The bond between caregivers and the elderly can be fragile – between 1 million and 2 million seniors are victims of elder abuse each year. Ninety percent of the abusers reportedly are family members.


It’s no big secret that America’s citizens are aging. During the 1900s, the U.S. population 65 and under tripled, while those 65 and above increased eleven-fold – from 3.1 million in 1900 to 33.2 million in 1994.

The numbers supplied by the Foundation for Health in Aging aren’t any big secret to Adult Protective Services, which estimates that the nation’s 65-and-older populace will double to 70 million – one in five people will be a senior citizen – by 2030. That same age group will double in California by 2020.

And it’s no big secret that many of the elderly will require assistance with daily-living tasks. If the statistics hold, between 1 million and 2 million of them will be victims of elder abuse each year. The big secret is that 90 percent of the abusers are family members. Worse, one in five cases isn’t reported. It’s a number that shocks Betty Malks.

“This is a crime,” she said. “This is the crime of the 21st century. Elder abuse is increasing all over the world. And people are getting older all over the world.”

As director of Santa Clara County’s Department of Aging and Adult Services for 12 years, Malks knows the numbers only too well.

Today, Malks is project director for Protecting Our Elders, a Santa Clara County Mental Health Department program that focuses on educating interfaith communities about elder abuse.

With more than 700 congregations in the county, it’s an approach with promise, according to Los Altos resident Margriet DeLange, a gerontolologist and the program’s community organizer.

“Seniors have the highest church-going attendance numbers – and they trust,” she said. “But the clergy aren’t trained in elder abuse.”

A recent addition to California’s Welfare and Institutions Code identifies clergy as mandated reporters who must inform specific authorities when elder abuse is suspected – similar to mandates for doctors and teachers in child-abuse cases. Malks’ program couldn’t come at a better time.

So far, 300 respondents and spiritual leaders have participated in four summits on learning to recognize the signs of elder abuse, how to intervene, how to prevent it – to speak out and lead by example.

“The interest is huge – with commitments to follow through,” said Malks of the ongoing series of gatherings.


Beyond the physical

Malks is taking the message to seminaries to develop awareness in young clergy members. If clergy lack the time to attend a seminar, Malks said they could request a speaker to visit the congregation.

California recognizes nine categories of elder and dependent-adult abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual, financial, abandonment, isolation, abduction, self-neglect and neglect.

While neglect accounts for 20 percent of Santa Clara County’s cases and physical abuse 11 percent, self-neglect leads the categories, accounting for 37 percent of cases reported to authorities.

Self-neglect often occurs because the seniors are isolated and unable to care for themselves.

Elder abuse crosses all the lines, Malks said – racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic. While bruises, scratches and broken limbs signal physical abuse, the signs of financial abuse are more subtle.

And in affluent communities, like Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, financial abuse is rampant against the elderly, who are often targeted in scams and become victims of fraud.

“Strangers befriend seniors,” DeLange said. “They prey on that vulnerability and isolation.”

“This is the generation that saved and saved and saved,” Malks said of seniors, many of whom developed frugal fiscal conservatism.

“And that generation has never learned to ask for help,” DeLange said. “This could be Los Altos, Los Altos Hills people.”

It’s not only strangers defrauding older adults. Stressed and unpaid caregivers, often family members, may justify stealing from seniors.

Signs and silence

“Elder abuse is hidden. It thrives on silence.”

This is the message Malks is determined to deliver, and the close relationships clergy develop with their parishioners as confidantes can provide the connections in communication for someone who is isolated.

Protecting Our Elders helps leaders recognize the subtle signs of financial abuse, as well as other signs that signal one of the flock is being abused.

“The abuse stems from feeling intimidated,” according to Malks.

Very often, victims rely on their caregivers for assistance and are too frightened, ashamed or sick to report abuse.

For caregivers – “It’s really very, very difficult work, without a lot of support,” Malks said – frustration can set the stage to abuse the elder.

“We need to understand what the cycle is before we can break the cycle,” she said.

Greed, envy, anger, revenge – all are catalysts that contribute to elder abuse, Malks said.

“Or purely thinking that it’s OK,” DeLange added.

To report a suspected case of elder abuse, call Santa Clara County Adult Protective Services at (800) 414-2002.

“(The phone line is) manned 24/7,” Malks said. “And we have live people answering the phone.”

In most cases, the agency investigates reports within 24 hours, with an understanding of and respect for seniors’ rights to self-determination.

“We do whatever we can to keep (seniors) in the home,” Malks said, “and get the perp out.”

For more information, call 269-2589 or visit

Contact Mary Beth Hislop at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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