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Sherri Richards, Published October 07 2012

InDepth: Domestic violence and an advocate for elders

FARGO – When Kim Douglas speaks to senior citizens in the community about elder abuse, she sees eyes grow large as they realize they could be a victim of abuse.

“They think that if you shove me or hit me or leave a bruise, that’s what abuse is,” she says. “It’s so much more than that. The emotional or psychological abuse is so much longer lasting.”

Douglas, a former local radio personality, is the abuse later in life advocate at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.

In her position, funded by a federal grant, a victim of elder abuse is defined as age 50 or older. This is because often people age 50 to 65 get lost in the system, she says. They’re not part of Social Security, but also often don’t qualify for services provided when there are children in the home.

While she handles what could be considered traditional domestic abuse situations in 50-something couples, she also sees many cases of financial exploitation of seniors, which she says is “exploding” in the area. Children coerce or bilk their parent into giving them money. Grandchildren take possessions they feel entitled to, she says.

The services she provides depend on each case. Sometimes, she helps connect victims with legal services, temporary housing or financial support.

“All these resources are available already, they just don’t know about them,” Douglas says.

She also often provides emotional support and counseling.

Greg Diehl, director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, says prior to Douglas, the office didn’t have a staff member who could go into the community to meet elders in their homes or care facilities.

He notes aging creates complications that younger victims of abuse may not face, such as transportation or housing issues. “If they need to leave the residence they’re in, it’s not as easy as for somebody at a younger age to go into a shelter,” he says.

Douglas wonders how many cases of elder abuse are happening that aren’t reported. She says some estimates say only one in 14 incidents is reported.

“There’s a shame to admitting you’ve been abused in this population,” she says. “This is giving them a voice.

“We’re keeping their secret, but getting them the help they need.”