Despite temperatures nearing 100 degrees, more than six dozen people turned out Monday for the first Johnston County Elder Abuse Awareness Walk.
The mile-long silent march along Smithfield’s greenway coincided with events around the globe in observation of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
The observance is in its ninth year, and the Johnston County Department of Social Services decided it was time to organize the first local event, said Wendy Whitfield, supervisor of adult services.
“Numbers have increased so widely this year for the reports (of elder abuse) that we get, that we knew it was time to bring awareness to the issue,” she said. “Lots of people know about abuse and neglect of children, but they don’t know that it also exists in the elderly community.”
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Abuse and neglect of older persons occurs both in their homes and in nursing facilities, Whitfield said, and 90 percent of elder abuse occurs at the hands of a family member. Experts estimate that one in every 14 cases goes unreported.
Social workers Kelly Freese and Teresa Gardner took the lead in organizing the walk. The goal was to raise awareness of the issue, Freese said, and to inform the public that DSS can connect them with programs and services to assist the elderly. Often, that help can prevent a difficult situation from turning into an abusive one, she said.
“Too many times, when we have to go out, there’s a crisis situation involved because people didn’t know where to go,” Freese said. “What causes a lot of the issues is caretaker stress and burnout.”
The Johnston event began at the Neuse River Amphitheater, where Johnston Commissioner Chad Stewart read a proclamation declaring June 15 Elder Abuse Awareness Day in the county. More than 17,000 people 65 and older call Johnston home, Stewart said, and it is every resident’s responsibility to look for and report signs of abuse and neglect.
“Elder abuse is something that we need to pay close attention to because it is so often overlooked,” he said.
After the opening ceremony, participants embarked on their walk along the Neuse River. The walkers remained silent and used the time to reflect upon the elder abuse. Along the way, organizers had placed signs that shared facts about the issue.
The walk took place with financial support from Roto-Rooter and J. West Vinyl Siding & Windows. Among other things, the sponsors provided bright yellow-and-purple T-shirts to commemorate the occasion.
Dewayne Owens, general manager of Roto-Rooter, said he had never heard of elder abuse when Freese asked him to become a sponsor. Once he got informed, Owens said, the issue hit home because his wife is a full-time caregiver for his mother-in-law.
“I wondered, if she had to be in an assisted-care facility, would people take care of her like we would?” he said. “I’m excited to be a part of the very first walk, and I’m looking forward to many more years.”
Identifying, reporting abuse
Elder abuse falls into four general categories, according to the DSS. Those are:
Abuse: The most obvious form, abuse includes willful infliction of physical or mental pain; unreasonable confinement; or deprivation of necessary services by a caretaker.
Self-neglect: Occurs when a disabled adult has no caretaker and cannot properly maintain his or her mental and physical health.
Exploitation: When someone, often a family member, takes advantage of an elder to gain access to his or her resources.
Caretaker neglect: Happens when a person responsible for an elder’s care fails to provide the services needed to maintain his or her mental and physical health.
The most common signs of elder abuse include:
▪ Bruises, burns, cuts or scratches.
▪ Medical conditions that go untreated.
▪ Unsafe or unsanitary housing.
▪ Mental anguish and distress.
▪ Mistrust of others.
▪ Mismanaged property, finances or savings.
▪ Failure to provide needed care.
▪ Aimless wandering at night.
▪ Inability to cook, bathe, use the bathroom, dress or care for oneself.
▪ Bed sores, weight loss or dry skin and lips.
North Carolina law requires residents to report suspected cases of elder abuse to their local department of social services. Reports should include the victim’s name and address; age or date of birth; mental and physical condition; caretaker’s name, if her or she has one; and the names of anyone else who might be able to provide information.
DSS protects the information of people who notify the department of suspected abuse, and reports may be made anonymously for additional security.
To contact the Johnston County Department of Social Services, call 919-989-5300 or stop by the office at 714 North St., Smithfield.