Empowering a Very Special Kind of Patient

By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)

Shame on you, Christopher Thomas Aber.

If you don’t know who Christopher Aber is, he’s married to Christina Aber, daughter of Emmy Award-winning actor Mickey Rooney. Aber is accused of verbally, emotionally, and financially abusing his 90-year-old stepfather. Rather than allow himself to be a victim, Rooney went before the Senate Special Committee on Aging to ask for help.

“I am here today because it is so important that I share my story with others, especially those who may be watching at home, suffering silently as I was, he said, “If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney, it can happen to anyone.

Sadly, it is estimated that 14 percent of non-institutionalized older adults had experienced some form of abuse in 2009, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office published on Bloomberg.com. And a recent article in the New York Times points out that elderly patients often drop hints about their private suffering to their doctors. In addition to finding signs of physical abuse, doctors hear their elderly patients fret over missing valuable items, signing forms that haven’t been properly explained to them, and more. Some doctors mistake these anecdotes for signs of memory loss associated with aging. Some are confused about the proper procedure for handling such a situation.

The healthcare system is crucial in defending elderly patients against abuse. Recognizing this fact, the Montefiore Medical Center launched a program in 2008 that trained doctors in identifying signs of abuse so that the cases can be reported to social services. In that same year, the New York City Council passed a law that requires “employees of agencies that contract with the Department for the Aging and who have “significant and direct contact with senior citizens to attend training on elder abuse.

Believe it or not, there’s an opportunity here for Pharma and healthcare companies to be champions for people whose voices are often underheard. Last week, Jason Brandt suggested different ways that technology can help our senior citizens live fuller, more independent lives – from finding the best retirement facilities to installing motion sensors that alert officials of an in-home accident. What we did not discuss was implementing plans for emergency response in instances of abuse.

Social media and mobile training

While many of today’s seniors are tech-savvy, not enough of them understand the benefits of social media and mobile technology. The key objective here is constant contact – regular tweets and status updates can keep a moderator abreast of the goings-on in an elderly community. If a community member seems particularly depressed or continuously mentions losing things, the moderator can request an investigation into the situation from local authorities.

Patient education and empowerment

One of the obstacles we have to consider is that victims of abuse are often ashamed of reporting their situation. In cases of elderly abuse, the abuser is often a loved one that the victim does not want to betray. It’s important not just for doctors to recognize the signs of abuse, but even the patient needs to be educated on the key criteria for abuse. The Internet gives us access to more information than ever before – some would argue information overload. For the elderly, accessing the resources that they need can sometimes be overwhelming. Creating a reservoir that delivers the latest news and information to seniors about their health and well-being empowers seniors in desperate situations to make the right decisions for themselves.

Preventing Financial Abuse

A secure financial application may have prevented Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate situation. Seniors are easy prey for scam artists, who exploit their generosity. There are many personal banking apps on the market, but few with the kind of built-in security needed for elderly use. Some criteria for building such an app would be a list of “approved vendors,” or institutions that the person makes regular payments to, such as a grocery chain or movie theater. Another feature of the app is that every expenditure must be listed under a category, while miscellaneous expenses require personal authorization from the user.

Since Mickey Rooney went public with his story, he was granted court protection from his abusive stepchildren and has raised awareness for elderly victims of abuse nationwide.

“All I want to do is live a peaceful life, to regain my life and be happy,” Rooney wrote in a statement to his fans. “I pray to God each day to protect us, help us endure and guide those other senior citizens who are also suffering.”

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