State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
‘The Elderly’ seem hesitant to embrace their brand. When you pat them consolingly on the cardigan and yell at them that it’s time for their walk, time for their medicine, time for their nap, time for pudding; they can appear downright churlish, boldly ungrateful, sometimes even a little downcast. What up with that? It is a question we do well to ask in this possessive-apostrophe-challenged epoch. It’s just possible they don’t know they are The Elderly, despite our culturally incessant efforts to put them in their Elderly Place(s).
The frail old dear your average waitress can scarcely look in the eye is not an exotic species, or someone whose ‘best’ days are behind her. Our seniors are not soft statues to be warehoused, set gently side and seen to with visits and clock-watching small talk. They are as quaint and boring and old timey as the lunar rover and hydrogen bomb, whose atoll-vaporizing blast gave us the word bikini.
These silenced nursing home set-asides are a secret cabal of once and future martini enthusiasts, fooling around in the sleeper car on the night train to Boston, doing a thronged, gin-fueled Lindy Hop before a blaring bandstand, scrambling up the bullet-riddled cliffs of Omaha Beach, and sprinting down the shattered streets of London amid a mad fall of rockets. They built the interstate highway system, dreamed up the internet, and swung a Wilson six-iron on the surface of the moon, chipping a golf ball an estimated 2 miles.
In 1967, some of today’s ‘Elderly’ could be found making love in public parks, naked and stoned (but for love beads) during the sweltering Summer of Love.
“Is that you, grandpa?”
Their baggy pants and saddened floral dresses notwithstanding, they have done things it makes us nervous to even read about, and in the process Made Our World. And they are increasingly a population of the abused and exploited.
Rock n Roll Elders, and the Morons who Misapprehend Them
We are morons (see?) to believe our elders are ‘past their prime’. To put the matter into terms the modern computer-obsessed reader can understand, their memories are nearly full, their hard drives are failing, and the Cloud to which they are repairing may or may not be great at data storage. We don’t know, the connection is for crap. When their drives shut down the data is lost. Or as life-starved Roy Batty memorably says at the end of the film Blade Runner; “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” These large-as-actual- life people with the downturned eyes are super heroes. Their baggy pants and funny floral dresses notwithstanding, our seniors have leaped tall buildings in a single figurative bound. And here we are, stepping on their capes.
When that generation shuts down the data is lost; there will be no reboot. Or as life-starved Roy Batty memorably says at the end of the film Blade Runner; “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” These large-as-actual-life people with the downturned eyes are our super heroes. Their baggy pants and funny floral dresses notwithstanding, our seniors have leaped tall buildings in a single figurative bound. And here we are, stepping on their capes.
Tag-Team Superhero Rescue
Section 368 of the California Penal Code spells out the details of elder abuse and its various judicial remedies in 974 words of bone-dry exactitude. If you’ve been physically abused, mentally abused, deliberately placed in harm’s way, if you’ve been isolated for the benefit of the prospective perpetrator, had your money spirited away, if you’ve been falsely imprisoned – if any of these things have been visited upon you, and you’re 65 or older, you have experienced some legally arguable species of Elder abuse. The same is true if you suffer any of these indignities and are a physically or mentally compromised “Dependent Adult” between the ages of 18 and 64. The judicial language is as flat and statutory as it has to be, but informs many many stories; colorful, tragic, hopeful, transforming.
In May of this year a gathering of impassioned professionals and volunteers convened in an auditorium at Santa Barbara City College where they ate finger foods, chatted amiably for a time, compared tattoos, and then sat down to get a dose of bracing hard truth. The Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Conference, despite its long and winding title, has a simple and singular goal; to revisit and reignite the discussion about our elders and the protections they can, and should be, afforded.
Among the local organizations and individuals represented in attendance this year, and through whose eyes we’ll sketch the Elder Abuse issue in this piece, were the Office of the Santa Barbara DA’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood, no-prisoner-taking Elder Advocate Amy Mallett, and stuff-stirring filmmaker Stu Maddux, appearing on the same thematic bill with the Pacific Pride Foundation and SaBLE – the Santa Barbara Lavender Elders, for whose LGBT seniors Elder Abuse is the foul icing on a cake already leavened with a measure of public discrimination.
Elder Protection outfits like these (not to mention perennial Knights of the Round Table like Joyce Ellen Lippman’s Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens-Area Agency on Aging, Brad Parks of Adult Protective Services, the Financial Abuse Specialist Team’s Jeanne West, Arlene Diaz of the Santa Barbara County Public Guardian’s Office, et al) use the annual gathering to compare notes, get the latest news and stats, and buck each other up for the coming year of battle-doing on behalf of our seniors. This constellation of do-gooders, many of them volunteers, work jointly with law enforcement and the DA’s office to place a shield between our Elder population and those who would exploit them or do them harm.
SB County’s Elders: Punched and Plundered in Shameful Numbers
At last count Santa Barbara county boasted 70,177 people 65 years of age and older, the magic age-marker that delineates a legally-defined abused Elder. In Santa Barbara County, for the year 2013 Adult Protective Services reports there were 1,933 reports of elder abuse, and of that number, there were 121 cases of financial abuse, or 19% of all cases reported. In the Elder Abuse racket, some perps punch while others plunder.
Nationally, statistics show respect for our ‘Elders’ is on the decline if taken as a measure of the varying degrees of actionable abuse meted out to them by a mixed bag of ne’er do-wells, about 90% of whom are related to the victim in some way,as well as garden-variety scammers, and some caregivers who cross lines due to stress, frustration, opportunism, or a misreading of what are proper Caregiving best practices.
One national study estimated that only about 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse is ever reported to the authorities. The Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Conference convenes each May (Elder Abuse Prevention Month), and indeed such meetings are regularly held in bewildered communities all over the country, and they all ask the same questions: why is the Elder Abuse problem getting worse? Why does so much of it go unreported? Can Elder Abuse be inadvertent? And when will our terminally distracted culture stop what it’s doing for a minute, really look at our seniors with loving eyes, and circle the wagons?
VWAP – The Quiet Triumvirate
The Santa Barbara Courthouse presides over a surrounding community of office buildings like a castle over a fiefdom, the nearby offices connected to each other and to the courts by their interlocking services; services that augment the criminal justice machinery and in some cases directly assist stunned and confused victims of crime. One of the buildings, an upright whitewashed shoebox, houses a team whose sole purpose is to humanize a jurisprudential hall of mirrors that to some folks can seem a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The Victim-Witness Assistance Program (VWAP to its acronym-grateful friends) is surely one of the jewels in the crown of the local criminal justice ensemble. Operating as an appendage of the District Attorney’s office, the VWAP puts itself at the service of stressed and frightened victims of crime trying to navigate the system, or simply wondering how to proceed. VWAP’s mission is to assure that victims of crime are aware of the resources available to them procedurally and emotionally.
Taking—and Making— the Call
But the office fields all sorts of phone calls. “Most of the calls are taken by Vicki Johnson and Susan Lord,” says the unit’s Director, Megan Riker-Rheinschild. There is a lot of ambiguity in the public’s mind about what constitutes Elder Abuse. People call in and inquire, saying ‘Hey, my mom lives is Santa Barbara, and I believe she is being taken advantage of by such and such a person.‘ Susan and Vicki take care of most of those calls.” Susan Lord elaborates.
“I’m an advocate,” Lord says. “20 hours, about half my time, is devoted to Elder Abuse. The other half of my case load is other types of cases.” Lord, for her part, picks up the phone to assure, to refer, and to calm her callers with the sort of relaxed demeanor that is surely food and drink to the anxious folks who call the Victim-Witness Assistance office for guidance. Many of the Elder Abuse calls she takes are parties to ongoing court cases, seeking updates and news about their situations in progress. A number of the calls, though, are a sort of cry for help – crisis intervention. In her crucial role as, in effect, a first responder, how does Lord know if the caller’s situation rises to the level of something that law enforcement should look at?
The Fine Art of Listening. And Changing Lives
“I just listen to the person and listen to what the whole background is, listen for issues. If there are things to be filed in civil court, or if there are issues of competency, I just refer them back. Basically what I’m listening for is a possible criminal aspect.” To triangulate on the issues inherent in the call, Lord often refers back to colleague Vicki Johnson, refers the matter to law enforcement, and makes a report to APS (Adult Protective Services).
“Everybody has their function in this,” She says matter-of-factly. Do the DA’s office and law enforcement truly have the resources they need to really tackle the Elder Abuse problem, legally intercede into each and every reported instance of Elder Abuse? Deputy District Attorney Tracy Grossman answers this way:
“The best case scenario for the District Attorney’s Office would be if we had
a dedicated prosecutor, investigator, and advocate, sometimes called a vertical prosecution unit, to solely handle Elder Abuse cases from the minute they come in the door through the time of sentencing the offender.”
The filial devotion that tears at abused Elders is what gets to Susan Lord.
“Sometimes the court asks that contact between an elder and an abusive child be severed, at least for a period of time, and some of these people say, ‘Well, I’m old, I don’t want to lose contact with my child. And sometimes I just want to say “Ma’am, your child is 57. When is he going to get it together?!”
Paul Greenwood and Vertical Prosecution
“We need to encourage the establishment of vertical prosecution units for elder abuse,” said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood in remarks to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Greenwood’soffice is considered by many to be a model of prosecutorial acumen in the Elder Abuse realm. Greenwood, a regular speaker at the Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Conference, wears his heart for seniors on his sleeve, and points at his sleeve at every available opportunity.
His work for the San Diego County DA on behalf of Elder Abuse victims is more than a job, and his office’s model of robustly dedicating resources and specialized attention to the issue makes him a popular presenter at Elder Culture conferences everywhere. Greenwood, an animated and emotionally forward Englishman with the dry wit one expects from the UK, took the time to answer my questions while traveling back to England to visit his own parents. Greenwood’s heartfelt love and respect for that generation, married to his thorough expertise, spell trouble for would-be abusers. He bridles at some of the institutional obstacles that make courtroom prosecution of Elder Abuse unnecessarily cumbersome.
Case Load versus Doing the Right Thing
“I am constantly asking our local law enforcement agencies to take the initial report and gather any available evidence – and then run the scenario by me so that I can then make a determination whether or not the facts support follow up,” Greenwood says with some exasperation.
Added to the fact that many instances of Elder Abuse go unreported, those that are reported can face a slippery uphill battle. Even if the way to trial seems clear in an abuse case, the storied unreliability of senior citizens as witnesses in court gives pause to time-and-resource-strapped prosecutors.
“Even if an investigation is referred to a prosecutor, a common reaction can be that the case is rejected because the prosecutor mistakenly thinks that the victim will not make an effective witness on court.” This is a prosecutorial saw with which Greenwood passionately disagrees. “My experience – spread over 18 years – has been very different. In the main, my victims are not only able to provide sufficient details, but are also credible and have real jury appeal.” At the convention in May, listeners came away from his animated, humor-filled presentation edified and inspired.
“There is still much to be done in creating greater awareness and a better understanding of our community responsibility to look out for our elders,” Greenwood says. “We are moving in the right direction, but we baby boomers need to stop always thinking about ourselves and start caring more for our aging parents.”
Discrimination Squared – Our LGBTQ Elders
“Tolerance” is a term that today is synonymous with broad-minded, inclusive, enlightenment thinking. It is a nitwit choice of terminology. To this writer the word suggests the clenched bearing up under a burdensome inconvenience. But you have to live with the cultural argot you’re given. Possibly one of the last and most desperate populations lobbying for ‘tolerance’ in this country are the LBGTQ (dare I say it – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and Queer) elder community.
They can be said to have bravely stormed the barricades of Stonewall in the revolutionary fever of youth, only to find in their Autumn years they’re being forced back into hiding by, of all things, a health care system that is largely, if quietly, hostile to their needs and the needs of their partners.
Filmmaker Stu Maddux has documented this surprise second wave of bigotry in his groundbreaking and celebrated film Gen Silent, which follows the difficulties of six LGBT seniors doing awkward battle with a care industry still coming around to the notion that young gays, lesbians and transgender folks eventually become older versions of same, and will have the same needs as their loud, gray-rights-insisting straight brothers and sisters.
Maddux says it plainly; “There is this phenomenon of people actually going back into the closet because they’re scared of the caregivers out there, and scared of the other people they are living with.”
Sheri Barden and Lois Johnson, KrysAnne Hembrough, Lawrence Johnson, Alexandre Rheume, Mel Simms, Walter Johnson and Ralph Horn lay out their cases in the film, one of them left alone to pass away on camera after a halting, not entirely thorough rapprochement with a disaffected, confused and angry grown child. Whatever your position on the larger LGBT social issues, the film will give you the vicarious horror of seeing frank prejudice and withdrawn social services added to the already tough road of growing older. To date, aging with some shot at dignity is the hard-won (and still contentious) privilege of the aging hetero class. Maddux, the Paul Revere of the Gen Silent phenomenon, wants to change that.
The Aptly named Amy Mallet does not Suffer Jackasses
“Man, if somebody did that to my grandmother, I’d be hard-pressed not to hurt them.”
Amy Mallett, today a much beloved personage in the area’s Senior Social Register, is referring to an episode that marked the beginning of her journey toward Elder Safeguarding; an instance of financial abuse she was pained to witness and felt helpless to prevent while a student at Westmont and caring for an elderly woman of means in exchange for room and board. The woman’s grown children began to openly take indiscreet advantage, constantly pressing upon the older woman her ostensible financial responsibilities to them as a mother and grandmother. And soaking her for dough.
“As my client and I got closer, I was able to see more and more what was happening. She was a very wealthy woman and her family was of taking advantage of her wealth, and it just struck me as so disrespectful. I could never imagine doing that to my mother or my father or my grandfather.“ Untrained and new to the sector, she felt powerless to intervene and left in sadness and frustration. Smitten with a growing feeling of affection, and of wanting to protect a senior population with whom she was beginning to deeply empathize, Mallett next took a position with a retirement facility. She soon noticed that the distinction between the dedicated caregivers and the clock-punchers couldn’t have been more depressingly stark. It rattled her, and it galvanized her.
“You could see the nurses and the CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistant) who were very caring, and then those who just needed the job and could care less about the people. It drove a stake in my heart.”
Goleta Valley Senior Center’s Joan of Arc
Mallett’s dedication to the cause is perhaps best reflected in the tattoo she had indelibly inscribed on her left forearmFor 13 years, Amy Mallett was Senior Director of the Goleta Valley Senior Center. In that role she oversaw the socializing of 400 or so local seniors for whom the facility remains a conduit to Life as it is meant to be lived; a combination meeting hub, sock-hop, and staging area for an array of activities that would exhaust a 30-something.
Under Mallett’s directorship, the spectrum of Things To Do for the Senior Center members ranged from Bingo to trips abroad (Scotland, Ireland, Costa Rica), and most things in between. The Senior Center was a conversation-and-dance-and-music-and-travel-and Life-filled Home away from home for a population to whom home, as in the house where they live, can come to seem a sort of prison for some.
Love Boat Cruise Director At Large
When things were humming at the center, Mallet would roam the space like a cruise director, one whose passengers were family. She threw herself at her charges, gave them all she had, and she took very seriously how indispensable an outlet the center was for her peeps.
‘We had a lady who played bingo here who was a caregiver for her husband. I had to cancel the bingo game one day because of a schedule conflict, and she was so upset. She said “You know, this is the only time that I get out of the house and have time for myself. These two days a week that I come here to play bingo are everything to me.’ She was very very upset. I really took that to heart,” Mallett says.
“I really learned to be aware of how much impact the center’s activities has on these lives. That was the only time that member was able to get out into the world and have time to herself. And that’s the way it is for a lot of seniors. Your care should also provide them a key to the outside world, to conversation and stimulation.
“They need to be taken care of, need to be loved. They need to be shown joy. My grandmother taught me that senior citizens are the most important people in the world, and they’re the ones we’re going to learn from. I don’t have my grandmother any more, but I have our seniors.”
Mallet can be seen in poignant action in a video made to commemorate her winning the 2008 SoCal Honda Helpful Award. In the film she is self-deprecating and camera-shy, and the seniors in the film very clearly adore her, and even more strikingly, she them. Movingly, one vibrant ‘elder’ in the 5-minute film exults with a ringing laugh, “She makes us feel like the whole world is happy that we’re still here!”
Ambassadors, Warriors and Shamans
Our seniors are ambassadors of another Age, an instructively turbulent one. Despite the rigors of their epoch, they walked (and ran) with upturned faces, saw birds fly, stars wheel, partook of their wildly churning world through every hour of its ragged pirouette. We owe them much, if not everything. We owe them our fealty. Now is our time to act as their guardians, to parent them. They’re warriors and shamans in repose.
Tonight, though, the waitress isn’t connecting with the oldsters who, to her chagrin, are seated in her station. She finds the whole deal off-putting and takes the drink order with a frozen smile that is not lost on the customer. When she gets to the drink station her shoulders slump.
“The old lady wants a Macarthur,” she says with puzzled disdain to the bartender. He is likewise flummoxed.
If you suspect elder abuse, report it. Act to protect seniors by bringing suspected abuse to the attention of the appropriate authorities. To report suspected abuse in Santa Barbara County, call Adult Protective Services (APS) in Santa Barbara at (805) 681-4550, APS in Santa Maria at (805) 346-8303 or APS in Lompoc at (805) 737-6020. If the abused lives in a long-term care facility, call (805) 922-1236.