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Kathy Greenlee serves as Assistant Secretary for Aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Administrator of the Administration for Community Living (ACL). ACL was created in 2012, bringing together the federal government’s work on behalf of older adults and people with disabilities. From the beginning, ACL was based on a commitment to one fundamental principle – that people with disabilities and older adults should be able to live independently and participate fully in their communities. ACL works with states, tribes, community providers, researchers, universities, nonprofit organizations, businesses and families to achieve that vision.
Prior to joining ACL, Ms. Greenlee served as Secretary of Aging in Kansas, and before that as the Kansas State Long Term Care Ombudsman. She also served as the General Counsel of the Kansas Insurance Department and served as Chief of Staff and Chief of Operations for then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius.
In this blog, Assistant Secretary Greenlee shines a spotlight on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and emphasizes that we can all make a difference in the prevention and detection of and response to elder abuse.
Today is a day I wish we didn’t have to observe.
On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, we who work on elder justice every day focus our collective efforts to share our knowledge and passion as broadly as we can. We lift our voices far and wide to combat abuse in all its forms by spreading information and awareness about the abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older adults.
As I have said many times, I believe elder abuse is a moral outrage that erodes the humanity in all of us. I still hear the voices of elders and family members from when I was a young lawyer just starting out in Kansas. I was shocked by the financial exploitation I learned about. I hear the voice of a veteran I met in San Diego—a woman who would have given her life to protect our country—embarrassed at having been taken in and left impoverished. The voices of these people, and so many others, serve as a constant reminder that we must all do our part to bring an end to elder abuse.
The good news is that we can all play a part in preventing and responding to elder abuse. This may seem obvious if you are a lawyer, law enforcement officer, doctor, or social worker. But it is just as true if you are a bank teller, hairdresser, faith leader, friend, or relative. Anyone can learn about the red flags of abuse or create a safe space for the elders they know to discuss how they are doing. To effectively respond to this crisis, we need to bring people to the table who may not realize that they can be a part of this effort.
A great example of the power of unexpected allies working together to address elder abuse can be seen in the emergence of multidisciplinary teams that bring together people and organizations from diverse fields to collaborate on elder justice efforts.
For example, teams convened by the NYC Elder Abuse Center include professionals working in diverse fields such as social work, medicine, law, nursing and psychiatry and systems such as criminal justice, health care, mental health, adult protective services, and the aging network. The teams meet regularly to review complex cases and work together to coordinate responses.
Mental health experts can discuss the trauma resulting from abuse. Prosecutors can explore legal options. Community groups and local agencies can connect survivors with needed services. And bank representatives can explain the red flags of financial exploitation from the outset, as well as the process of protecting or recovering assets. Each of these professionals contributes to the group’s efforts to help the person heal after experiencing abuse, hold the perpetrator accountable, and prevent further abuse and exploitation.
In addition to facilitating a coordinated response to elder abuse cases, multidisciplinary teams provide a space to identify gaps that no single individual could recognize or address on their own. In communities across the country, we see multidisciplinary teams coming together to create something that is greater than the sum of their parts.
In the federal government, we also are taking a multidisciplinary approach to addressing elder abuse. The Elder Justice Coordinating Council brings together leaders of a dozen federal departments and agencies, from the Department of Justice to the US Postal Inspection Service. We have found that we can all do more to end elder abuse when we are talking to each other and working together. The Council examined where federal efforts have succeeded and where we can improve, and then developed eight recommendations for increasing federal involvement.
On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and every day, let us not forget that every one of us can be a part of the solution. Everyone can act to prevent abuse and exploitation – no act is too small. It starts with one person and one action, and can grow until we are one nation united against elder abuse.