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Health & Medicine

Could Elder Abuse Be Detected by Emergency Medical Providers to Keep Older Adults Safer?


What role might medical professionals in emergency rooms play in spotting the sometimes-hidden signs elder abuse and neglect?  A new strategy in an Emergency Room could help keep seniors safer at home. 

It’s not that unusual for an older adult to come to an emergency room.  Doctor Tony Rosen, Emergency Medicine Professor Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, says rarely are they coming in to report elder abuse.

Doctor Tony Rosen, Emergency Medicine Professor Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital

“The careful emergency provider that’s asking questions, that’s watching for cues, that gets concerned, might find something that really makes them think, ‘gee I wonder what more could be gong on here.’  And maybe they witness an interaction between the older adult and the caregiver; maybe they witness a bruise that doesn’t have a great explanation.  And taking the next step is a critical part of emergency medicine.” 

He started the Vulnerable Elder Protection Team, or VERT, to get all the people in the ER – techs, nurses, etc. – to be on the lookout.  The team includes social workers and other service providers that can take the next step and check out if the person’s home is safe or to investigate hidden problems of abuse, neglect or exploitation.   Rosen spoke at Vera House’s Beyond First Response workshop to uncover elder abuse.  Coordinator Betsy Ferner says Onondaga County is already doing some of that coordination here.  And she adds it is likely others who recognize and report abuse.

“We know that seniors are giong to go to their friends, their pastors, their family and report that abuse.  They’re not going to call police; they’re not going to call adult protective.  So, if they can speak to those individuals, and they in turn can reach out to places like Vera House or adult protective services to try and figure out what the next steps might be and maybe provide some sort of a safety plan.”

She adds many people as they age don’t have family around, leading to more opportunity for abuse, neglect and increasingly financial exploitation.

“We’re also seeing ageism is a huge problem in our society.  We don’t respect older adults.  So, if we can push them off to the side and not really have to think about them, or if we think they’re no longer valuable in our community, I think that’s a huge piece of the abuse as well.”

Rosen wants more colleagues to look for signs, which could be physical, or they could be evidence that an adult is poorly cared for, or that a caregiver doesn’t know how to help and give care

“Ultimately emergency departments are kind of designed for , ‘I was at lunch and I have chest pains or I just got run over by a bus.’  They’re less designed for the kind of complex, multi-layered complaints that older people have.  And an important focus nationally is to improve care for older adults (in emergency rooms) and I would say elder abuse is a critical part of that. 

Elder abuse of any kind can be reported to Vera House or to Onondaga County’s Office for Aging.