State and Cornell University researchers estimated 260,000 New York residents older than the age of 65 were somehow abused or neglected — physically, financially or emotionally — in 2011.
But, without a national clearinghouse to collect the data and without uniform reporting methods, officials and elderly care advocates struggle to get a handle on how widespread abuse of America’s aging population is.
“It’s wildly underreported,” said Jean Callahan, executive director of Hunter College’s Brookings Center for Healthy Aging. “People in nursing homes are generally less capable than those out in the communities of speaking up for themselves.”
Federal officials and researchers are faced with collecting data from the nation’s disparate local and state law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and social service agencies.
That leaves them grabbing for numbers based on phone surveys and highly variable sources of data.
Physical and sexual abuse, affecting 23 out of every 1,000 New York senior citizens, was the second most prevalent complaint, outpaced only by greedy relatives and caretakers bleeding them of cash, the state study concluded.
Robyn Grant, public policy director for National Consumer Voice for Quality Long Term Care, an advocacy group, said state and federal penalties and the potential for bad press discourage nursing home administrators to self-report incidents.
Staff often keep quiet out of fear for their jobs.
“It’s really hard for staff to report because they’re really afraid they’ll be fired,” Grant said.
One national study found 17 percent of nursing aides have shoved or manhandled a patient.
A 2010 federal study found 50 percent of nursing home staff interviewed admitted to somehow mistreating, either physically or mentally, their patients within a 12-month period.
Two-thirds of those interviewed indicated they had neglected a patient at one time or another.
The federal government has for years struggled with accurately quantifying just how widespread abuse of the elderly actually is, instead of relying on academic surveys and estimates.
Rep. Peter King, R-Massapequa, Long Island, has sponsored the Elder Abuse Victims Act, which is now in committee in the House.
King’s legislation would create a federal agency within the Justice Department charged with creating a uniform method of tracking elder abuse from state and local government sources.
The legislation would also direct the U.S. Attorney General to identify how to best track and enforce cases of elder abuse. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, has co-sponsored King’s bill.
“Elder abuse is the only form of family violence for which the government provides virtually no resources,” King said Thursday, while citing estimates at least 11 percent of Americans older than 60 have faced some form of abuse in the past 12 months.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 70 percent of state-level nursing home surveys miss at least one problem at the facility in question.
At least 15 percent of those state reviews miss serious or dangerous problems, the federal department estimates.
The nation’s elderly are robbed of an estimated $2.5 billion each year from family and caregivers, according to multiple estimates.
“It is clear that federal action is necessary to address this growing issue,” King said.
The United Nations declared 2013 “The Year of Elder Abuse Awareness,” and a host of federal bills are expected to at least reach committee in Congress before the legislative session closes.