Boulder’s recent designation as a “Lifelong City” underscores the fact that many Boulderites can live out their post-retirement years here comfortably and fully. But regardless of the community they call home, older Americans are vulnerable to abuse, neglect and exploitation in ways that other adult age groups are not.
When it comes to combating elder abuse, Boulder County Chief Deputy District Attorney Christian Gardner-Wood says there are two major pillars: strong community ties and social cohesion.
And the first step toward achieving that, Gardner-Wood said during last month’s webinar hosted by the District Attorney’s Office on Elder Abuse Awareness Day, is knowing what to look for.
“The majority of older adults live in our community. They’re next door to us. We’re going to see them at the grocery store. We’re going to pass them on the street,” he said. “And they may need our assistance. They may have signs of being abused.”
Colorado’s population of adults over the age of 60 is growing rapidly, at the third-fastest rate in the United States, raising questions in communities like Boulder County about how to best protect older residents from abuse, neglect and exploitation.
Adults over the age of 65 are among the fastest growing age group in Boulder County, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census. That population is expected to continue growing the next decade, according to the state demographer.
In recent years, the number of complaints of abuse of older adults has increased in Boulder County, county officials say. Nationally, one in 10 adults 65 or older are abused each year, according to data presented during the county’s webinar.
Since 2018, case referrals to Boulder County Adult Protective Services (APS) have increased by 29%, based on the county’s projection for anticipated referrals in 2022. Case referrals stem from allegations of abuse, which can be made by a mandatory reporter, such as a social worker or bank employee, or anyone else who is concerned about an older adult.
The types of reports made to the county include physical and mental abuse, financial exploitation, abandonment and more. The county told Boulder Reporting Lab it also collects reports of abuse from assisted living centers but declined to release data on the reports, citing confidentiality laws.
Though Gardner-Wood highlighted increased penalties for committing crimes against “at-risk” individuals like older adults, the vast majority of abuse cases against older residents are not reported to law enforcement.
The District Attorney’s Office estimates that only one in 12 cases of psychological abuse are reported nationally. The numbers are lower for other categories of abuse: one in 20 of physical abuse, one in 44 of financial exploitation, and one in 57 of caretaker neglect.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said one factor contributing to the underreporting of abuse is the fact that most cases — 75% nationally — are perpetrated by the victim’s family member.
“When someone is victimized by a family member… 40 percent of perpetrators are adult children of the victim, so someone might have some reluctance or hesitancy around calling the police on their adult son who is stealing from them,” Dougherty said. “Perhaps they are scared about where they’re going to live, who they’re going to live with, who’s going to care for them.”
The county’s data should be taken with a grain of salt, as APS also responds to reported abuse toward adults with disabilities. And the upward trend includes all reports of abuse, not just substantiated allegations, according to the county.
Dougherty cautioned against reading too much into the uptick. “It may reflect an increase in criminal activity,” he said. “But it may also reflect raised awareness, that mandatory reporters are doing a better job, and that victims are aware that we’re here to help them and support them if they are victimized.”
The District Attorney’s Office encourages Boulder County residents to report any instances of suspected elder abuse to Adult Protective Services.
Prevention and resources
Dougherty said the best way to prevent abuse or spot it early is to look out for older adults in your neighborhood.
“First and foremost, keep in contact. Stay in contact with your neighbors, relatives, older friends. If you see red flags, say something to them,” he said.
Eden Bailey, Boulder’s manager of Older Adult Services, also underscored the importance of close community ties in combating elder abuse. In addition to providing a community space at the West Age Well Center in Boulder, her agency offers many programs for seniors to stay connected and active.
“We provide health and wellness programs, lifelong learning, trips and travel, support groups, special interest groups, and tech programs — helping people learn how to use technology,” Bailey said in an interview with Boulder Reporting Lab. “The West Age Well Center is the location for Meals on Wheels Eat Well cafe. That’s where older adults [or anyone else] can go to get a very nutritious, low-cost meal.”
In addition to providing community-building programs for residents 65 and over, Older Adult Services also offers case management to help older people navigate the daily stresses of life.
“We have staff who take [case management] calls, and we can offer some limited financial assistance for eligible residents with lower incomes,” says Bailey. “Other things we can provide are assessments for home health care and assisting people with completing benefits applications.”
Supporting caregivers through the county’s Caregiver Initiative is another way Bailey says the county is looking out for older residents. “We should be supporting our caregivers, who do a tremendous job in making sure family and friends are getting their needs met,” she said.
People can report abuse of older people through the Boulder County’s elder rights website. Reporting abuse is mandatory under Colorado law for certain people who work with older adults. Boulder County residents interested in volunteering their time to provide companionship to an older adult can find opportunities to do so with the county’s Area Agency for Aging.