A Helping Voice Helpline: How EAIME Supports Elder Abuse Reporting
You’ve always kept an eye out for your 81-year-old neighbor, Mrs. Miller, who was widowed two years ago. Sociable and physically active, she would never fail to bring out a lemonade for you and chat a bit after you mowed her small patch of lawn. When you shoveled her walk on a snowy day, she’d invite you in to warm up – and catch up – for a bit. You’d often see her heading out on her morning walk around the neighborhood with her chihuahua, Daisy, waving to neighbors and stopping to pick up the newspaper on her return.
But all of that has changed recently, after Mrs. Miller’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Katie, moved in to be closer to the university she attends. You hardly ever see Mrs. Miller anymore – she no longer takes a daily stroll, the newspapers are piling up on her walkway, and Daisy goes out on a tie-out in the backyard. When you carried her trash cans back from the curb last week, you saw Mrs. Miller watching from behind her screen door…but she didn’t call out a happy “hello!” like she once did. You bumped into Allison, another of Mrs. Miller’s neighbors, at the grocery store last night, and she said that she’s observed the same kinds of changes. In fact, she noticed that Mrs. Miller was wearing a sling to support her right arm and called several times to check in on her. Each time, Katie answered and said that her grandmother didn’t feel up to talking just then. Now you’re really worried…but what should you do?
You’re right to be concerned, as you’ve spotted a number of signs that Mrs. Miller may be experiencing elder abuse. Research shows that as many as one in six older adults – more than 40,000 in Maine alone – experience some form of elder abuse each year, with a significant number of those affected facing multiple types of mistreatment. As a consequence of this trauma, these older adults often face deterioration in health, higher rates of hospitalization, and increased mortality; clinical issues such as depression and suicide; social issues such as disrupted relationships; and financial loss…all of which can lead to diminished independence and quality of life.
Through an innovative research-based program, EAIME now offers a useful resource for situations like Mrs. Miller’s: A Helping Voice, a confidential phone support line for individuals with questions about how to report concerns about elder mistreatment to the appropriate agencies.
Recognizing that reaching out to authorities with concerns about an older adult’s well-being can feel a little uncomfortable for many people, the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine partnered with the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and the Giesel School of Medicine at Dartmouth to learn more about the barriers to reporting elder abuse to Adult Protective Services. The confidential phone helpline, A Helping Voice, emerged from intervention research funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leadership program. Initially designed to support home health care providers – who are mandated reporters obligated by law to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse or neglect – A Helping Voice is now open to calls from anyone in Maine who would benefit from guidance on making an APS report. A friendly and knowledgeable advisor helps to navigate the difficult and often painful decisions about what to do when someone suspects that an older person in their life is being mistreated. The advisor explores the issue of concern with a caller, helps to determine whether the matter is indeed abuse or neglect, provides information on how to call APS, and, if desired, will support the caller in making a report. (Please note, if you suspect that an older adult is in immediate danger, always call 911 to get help.)
Patty Kimball, Executive Director of the Elder Abuse Institute, shared that this program is instrumental in addressing what is often an invisible problem in Maine’s communities. She noted, “With fewer than 5% of elder abuse situations reported to authorities each year, it’s incumbent on organizations like the EAIME to empower concerned others with the resources and they need to make calls that can be life-saving. Often, older adults who have been harmed are afraid or unable to ask for help themselves, so it’s essential to increase the comfort level for reporting by family members, neighbors, and others who feel that something’s not quite right. Through A Helping Voice, we’ve been making it easier for concerned others to take meaningful action in a sensitive, respectful way. Even when a report isn’t substantiated – the best case scenario, in fact – the APS team often provides the older person with helpful information and makes connections to resources that can increase their independence and mitigate the risk of future abuse or neglect.”
If you have concerns about the well-being of an older adult in your life and would like to consult with an advisor from A Helping Voice, the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine invites calls to the helpline at 207-805-5555. The line is staffed during regular business hours (Monday through Friday from 9a-5p), but callers outside of those hours should leave a message and the call will be returned on the next business day. (Keep in mind that you should call 911 immediately if you believe an older individual is in imminent danger.) Additional information is also available on the program’s website, https://www.ahelpingvoice.org/.
[Note: an earlier version of this article appeared in the spring issue of Aging Well in Waldo County’s Village-Wise newsletter.]