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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Butterfly wings
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

The only thing scarier than the news reports that we read and see on television is the prospect of not knowing what is happening.

There are wars that will not end, an unknown number of not-war activities where military personnel get killed and a brink of nuclear war threat that could destroy us all. Criminal gangs rule some streets in some cities and seem to reach every hill and hamlet. Addiction to opioids and other drugs is a national — no, global — epidemic, which kills more people than all of the current wars and terrorist attacks combined.

Mixed in with these bad news stories are accounts of neglect, abuse and even murder of children, some just babies. They are helpless, defenseless. Harming them is like pulling the wings off butterflies.

Many of the elderly are also as dependent and helpless as small children. They are afflicted with physical or mental health problems, often both. Financial problems are often part of the painful mix. Even if such troubled seniors are aware that they are being mistreated, they do not rebel because they are dependent on their abusers and have no other options.

I know of a case years ago where a son brow-beat his aged mother for her "old-age pension" to get money to buy whiskey until a brother firmly persuaded him to end his tactics. Similar patterns of exploitation exist now and weak family ties lead to less protection for the elderly. There are other roots of evil than love of money, but greed ranks high. There have been cases where family members concealed the deaths of parents — even living with a body in the house — in order to keep receiving Social Security checks. That is a crime, of course, inevitably resulting in a prison sentence because it is not possible to conceal a death forever.

Much more prevalent is a pattern of disrespect, bullying and coercion. Financial exploitation remains a central issue, but power and control can be just as important. Having always been in a position of authority, elders expect to remain in charge, but when they become dependent and another generation becomes responsible, tensions over power emerge. That battle is one which seniors are ill-equipped to win.

Clearly, cases of neglect and abuse of the elderly by family members constitute the exception, not the rule. Probably, most seniors would like more time with or attention from their families as their worlds of activities and friendships shrink but love and support are not in short supply.

There are cases of abuse and exploitation at the hands of hired care givers who go into the homes of semi-dependent seniors to cook, clean house, help with physical or medical problems, etc. Many such arrangements work well for both the elderly and care givers. The older person gets to remain in his or her own home and the provider gets to work in a relaxed, home-like setting.

However, there can be problems about adequate training and trustworthiness. I know of a case where an older lady kept large amounts of cash tucked into her secret hiding places until the care giver learned those secrets, emptied them of thousands of dollars and departed for parts unknown.

There are plenty of accounts of neglect and abuse in institutional settings, mostly hospitals and nursing homes. Emphatically, I am not "out to get" such organizations. They are absolutely necessary. They are havens of mercy for sick and disabled older people and others. With poorer patients, they must rely on limited Social Security funds and Medicaid. At least some staff members work with their hearts as well as their hands and backs. During the recent hurricane-driven flood in Houston, one such woman waded through the nasty water to get to her "babies" in a nursing home.

However, there are some neglectful and/or abusive staff members and some poorly performing nursing homes. lt is not easy to make money by meeting the needs of poor people. One way to "cut back" is to reduce spending on personnel salaries and benefits and this can affect the sort of people who take care of patients.

I know of a case where a family member found a man in his 90s sitting out in the hall in his wheelchair wearing only a diaper. An Alzheimer's patient in her 90s had the thin skin on her arm ripped by a staff person trying to force her to take a bath. I did not hear of anyone getting fired in either situation, although two old butterflies lost their wings.

Ombudsman oversight of nursing homes is provided under contract with regional Area Agencies on Aging, but representatives can only visit. They are not constantly present. Even with the best nursing (AKA rehabilitation) facilities and the best staff members, it is a good plan for family members and friends to visit regularly and observe carefully. Butterflies, regardless of age, must be handled with care.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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