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Workshop Series Explores a Touchy Topic: Elder Abuse

AARP Workshop host Pamela Toussaint welcomes workshop participants on Thursday. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

In an effort to keep Virgin Islands seniors safe from abuse, the local chapter of AARP launched a workshop series to explore the subject of elder abuse. Experts speaking at the first event, held Thursday, said more than a third of all seniors say they have been harmed by some form of abuse.

Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice and Legal Services of the Virgin Islands shared information with an audience of about 40 people gathered on St. Thomas and St. Croix and connected by way of live stream.

One of the leading advocates representing AARP greeted attendees. Associate Director Pamela Toussaint told them the association knows there is a problem with elder abuse in the Virgin Islands, but there is no data to prove it. Toussaint added that elders often suffer abuse at the hands of caregivers and that some of those attending the workshop could be among the offenders.

She described elder abuse as a problem appearing in many forms: financial or consumer-driven, as domestic violence, as harassment or stalking, based in cyberspace or in the environment.

The majority of which go unreported, Toussaint said. “What I will tell you is most of the time, these cases go under-reported or not reported at all because people oftentimes are embarrassed. Any kind of abuse, whether it’s physiological, psychological, sexual — the victims are often very embarrassed to even bring it to the forefront,” the advocate said.

Attorney Tania Parker, elder law specialist at Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, said between 30-40 percent of seniors suffer some form of abuse. And while many are reluctant to seek help from the authorities, some are compelled to do so.

Parker addressed the topic of financial abuse. She recalled one client who struggled with poor health and a tenant who refused to pay the rent. When the landlord sought an eviction order from the court, he was turned down, Parker said.

Local courts tend to favor tenants, she said. As a result, the ailing landlord found himself in a difficult situation since renting his property was his primary source of income.

Other examples of financial abuse described at the workshop included abuse of joint accounts, forgery, misappropriation of cash, and abuse of court-issued Power of Attorney orders. And the Legal Services attorney said those who experience these problems usually don’t have to look far to find out who’s involved.

“More often than not, the abuser is the caretaker or a family member,” she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joycelyn Hewlett shared a story about elder abuse caused by environmental pollution. Often elderly and disabled persons live around landfills and wastewater treatment plants where they are exposed to hazardous substances, she said. She recalled the story of a woman in her 90s who lived near the site of a leaking sewer line. When heavy rains flooded the area, wastewater seeped under the door of her home.

The Justice Department was able to cite the offending agency under the federal Clean Water Act. Still, she said, the elderly woman had a long wait before relief appeared.

Hewlett asked the gathering if the problem were to have occurred in an affluent community, how long would it take for the problem to be solved.

A day and a half, one audience member said. In one afternoon, said another. The speaker agreed, saying someone in authority may have paid attention sooner.

“When people have better environments, they live longer,” Hewlett said.

Toussaint assured those attending that the purpose of the workshop was not to leave them feeling guilty but to give them greater understanding of elder abuse and to examine the roles they may play.

“Many of us in here are caregivers, some have been caregivers or sometimes we have been taken care of … We understand some of the challenges we face as caregivers, and sometimes people will take advantage of our elderly and disabled population as well. So AARP felt it necessary to have this most important conversation,” Toussaint said, “because it’s a necessary conversation.”

Two more workshops exploring different aspects of elder abuse are planned for June and November. In June, participants will hear discussions on the Elder Justice Act. November’s workshop will explore the topic of healthcare fraud.

“What AARP wants you volunteers to do is stand up and say ‘Enough is enough, and we want it to stop,’ but we need to be aware, first and foremost, before we start to say that,” the advocate said.


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