Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel
The soft-spoken 83-year-old Martha Cunningham didn’t want to tell her story to the crowd of more than 100 at the mall.
But the Bowie woman took the podium Friday for the investigator who helped her get on her feet when she was using food stamps after her son abused her for more than $200,000 during her “golden years.”
Hosted by Sen. Joanne Benson, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day – aimed at promoting a better understanding of elder abuse and raising awareness of the processes affecting it – featured Sheriff Melvin High, Fire Department Chief Mark Bashoor and Principal Deputy State’s Attorney Tara H. Jackson as guest speakers, music by “senior idols” Irvin Haywood and Carolyn Butler, information tables and bingo games at the mall in Hyattsville.
“Wherever I see abuse of a senior, I’m on it. I don’t care where you live,” said Benson, urging seniors to contact local officials. “I’m like a wild woman when it’s brought to my attention.”
Widely considered an underreported crime, elder abuse is the “intentional or neglectful acts by a caregiver or ‘trusted’ individual that leads to, or may lead to, harm of a vulnerable elder,” according to a fact sheet published by the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office. It includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and financial forms of abuse.
“I trusted him,” Cunningham said of her financially-abusing son. “I really never questioned it. I didn’t know what to do about it.”
Seniors were offered informative handouts and pamphlets for resources available through the City of Hyattsville, Prince George’s County Fire Department, AARP, Independence Now, Inc., State’s Attorney’s Office, and the P.E.A.C.E. (Protect Elders Against Crime & Exploitation) coalition that protects elders against crime and exploitation.
Participants were advised to be wary of the most common scams against seniors, including health care fraud, counterfeit prescription drugs, funeral scams, internet fraud, jury duty scams, telemarketing scams, investment schemes, mortgage scams, sweepstakes scams and “grandparent scams.” In the “grandparent scam,” a scammer calls an older person; says something like, “Hi, Grandma, do you know who this is,” then pretends to be his or her grandchild and eventually asks for money to solve an unexpected financial problem.
While some abusers become acquainted with seniors for the purpose of taking money from them, Jackson said most abusers are family members or caretakers.
The abuser is a family member in 90 percent of all abuse cases when the elderly victim knows the perpetrator, according to the fact sheet published by Jackson’s office.
Financial mistreatment is the most frequent form of elder abuse. More than 5 percent of Americans age 60 and older are victims of financial mistreatment by family members, according to a national 2010 study cited in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s handout.
“When one of us hurts, we all hurt,” the sheriff said. He outlined education, enforcement and advocacy as the three ways his office deals with elder abuse.
Fraud investigator Albert Reed of the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office helped Cunningham “get places” and pay her gas and electric bills after her son took more than $200,000 in checks from her by claiming to pay for long-term insurance, Cunningham said.
“We do everything in our power to prevent you from being victimized,” Jackson said. “It’s our obligation to protect the most vulnerable.”
Elders in the U.S. lose an estimated $2.6 billion annually due to elder financial abuse and exploitation, according to the Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration on Aging.
Jackson said financial abuse goes “hand in hand” with psychological and emotional abuse.
For Hyattsville woman Loretha Blunt, who suffered from spousal abuse in her younger years, it is obvious that there is more than one type of abuse.
“I’ve been experiencing something that I’m not comfortable with,” she said, characterizing the current abuse as emotional and psychological harassment. “I have the need to talk to someone to put into perspective what I’m experiencing now.”
“I’m glad I came,” Blunt added.
“You have a friend and a strong advocate in the state’s attorney’s office,” Jackson said to the crowd. “We couldn’t be here without you.”