Social distancing makes seniors vulnerable to abuse, Jewish groups say

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The older woman on the phone was distraught.

Cut off from her children by COVID-19, neglected by her husband and without computer access, she was running out of food. Tova Zimm, a victim advocacy manager with the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, stayed on the line and created an account to help her order groceries on the internet.

“She started crying and said she’s so embarrassed to ask for help but that she had no idea how to do anything online,” Zimm said. “And everything is online now, because the whole world has switched.”

The Rockville-based JCADA is one of several Jewish social service agencies in the region watching elder abuse and neglect escalate during the coronavirus outbreak.

The in-person services that many seniors relied on are now shut down, and some are unfamiliar with the technology and virtual substitutes that younger generations have turned to during social distancing.

“These are populations that are not necessarily comfortable with Zoom,” said David Gamse, CEO of the Jewish Council for the Aging, referring to the popular videoconferencing software platform.

Many of the seniors that JCA serves are also the most vulnerable population for contracting the coronavirus, increasing their sense of isolation and eliminating the possibility of permitted and necessary outings, like grocery runs, that are relatively simple for the rest of the population during social distancing.

“They have no capacity, for the most part, to leave the house and go to grocery stores or food pantries,” Gamse said. “They have fear of venturing outside and that fear is well grounded in medical fact, based on the extraordinarily high risk that most of our clients have.”

Gamse and others in the field have watched helpline calls and abuse reports drop during shelter-in-place, suggesting that people are having difficulty getting in touch with service providers. The apparent increase in elder abuse and decrease in reporting has become “an extraordinary concern” for Gamse.

JCADA and JCA are continuing to operate helplines, as is ElderSAFE at Charles E. Smith Life Communities, which also offers physical shelter for seniors escaping abusive settings.

Gamse said JCA’s operators are fielding many calls about transportation and food insecurity as the day programs that offered meals have closed. Many callers also seem to be looking for someone to talk to.

“People are spending far, far longer on the phones with our professional staff and clearly it’s because they are so very lonely and so very worried,” Gamse said. It’s often through extended conversation that JCA staff learn about a need for other services, like telephone companion resources or escorted transportation to medical appointments, that callers believed did not exist.

Reports of abuse, though, continue to lag, and Gamse said that’s a bad sign.

“We believe that’s because the abuser makes it difficult or impossible for the victim to reach out by phone or in person,” Gamse said. “At the very time they might be at particular risk physically or emotionally, they are unable to get the help or even make their circumstances known.”

The number of Adult Protective Services cases in Montgomery County, which has a high concentration of older Jewish residents, are down more than 50 percent compared to last year. Fifty-five cases were opened in April compared to 121 during the same period last year, according to data shared with Washington Jewish Week.

“COVID-19 made for a dramatic decrease due to in large part isolation, I believe,” Mario Wawrzusin, an administrator with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email.

When the help line calls do come, they are placed from grocery stores, parked cars and walks with the dog — anywhere that victims can find time away from their home.

“They can’t just Zoom with us and talk about the abuse while the abuser is in the next room,” said Zimm, who noted that calls have increased within the last two weeks as people adapt to the new normal and find ways to reach out.

JCADA, which works with both Jewish and non-Jewish clients, has largely adapted its workflow to meet social distancing requirements. Employees are fielding calls from home, and moving educational programing — like how to create a safety plan to escape abuse during COVID-19 — online.

But some former work is increasingly difficult to do, said executive director Amanda Katz. Courts have closed or changed schedules, making restraining orders difficult to obtain, and educational outreach about healthy relationships planned for schools and offices has been canceled through June.

Some of the typical ways to monitor for abuse and respond have been rendered moot by social distancing as well.

“We had to throw the playbook out the window a little bit,” Katz said. “Because some of the normal things we give as warning signs — everyone is forced to endure collectively now.”

“A warning sign would be social isolation, and now we are all socially isolated.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a writer based in Washington.

How to watch for signs for elder abuse

ElderSAFE director Tovah Kasdin said her organization’s mentality is that “everyone is a first responder.”

“Professionals, clergy, building managers, anyone who has contact with elders doesn’t need to be an expert on elder abuse but they should know where to turn,” Kasdin said. “Reporting is potentially life-saving.”

Kasdin and Zimm said that while identifying signs of abuse during COVID-19 can be difficult, there are things it is still possible to watch for.

There may be legitimate reasons you’re unable to get in touch with an older relative or friend right now, especially those living in facilities overwhelmed by the restrictions related to the outbreak. But you should still try to be in regular contact.

“If they’re not responding or answering and they typically would that could be a red flag,” Zimm said. While respecting social distancing, it is still possible to try and visit a loved one from their yard or steps in order to check on them, she said.

Zimm also suggested letting neighbors know if you suspect abuse or neglect so they can keep tabs while you are prevented from making regular visit.

Both Zimm and Kasdin also warned of an increase in financial scams preying on seniors during the current pandemic.

Kasdin said many of these scams promise a vaccine, cure or testing for COVID-19, or claim to be providing medical supplies. ElderSAFE is encouraging seniors to avoid telemarking calls and emails and even mobile phone applications.

“We’re telling people if there’s a vaccine or a cure you’re not going to find out about it from an email or a note on your door,” Zimm said.
—Arno Rosenfeld


JCADA: 1-877-88-JCADA(52232)
ElderSAFE (9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday to Friday):
JCA: 301-255-4200 or 703-425-0999

Adult Protective Services
Montgomery County: 240-777-3000
Other Maryland counties: 1-800-332-6347
D.C.: 202-541-3950
Virginia: 1-888-832-3858

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