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By Valerie D. Lockhart
     Bugs crawled up the side of Alberta Witherspoon’s blouse finding shelter beneath the fabric. The 83-year-old stretched out her arm to show off bug bites, pointed and said, “Look! I sit here and kill bugs all day. My arm bleeds from the bites.”  
     The senior lives in deplorable conditions that are unfit for animals. She notes how she shares her studio apartment with three types of roaches and mice. Thieves and maintenance workers have broken into her home several times, overturning boxes filled with books and papers and throwing clothes all over the floor. Candy in a dish has even been eaten by the scoundrels, who toss wrappers onto the floor. There is no television to keep her company; for, it has been broken for several months. A fan blows hot air to cool her off during blazing summer temperatures. She sleeps on an old sofa that was pulled out of the trash and dragged inside by a passerby. Her toilet is backed up, she bathes in a large bucket, and the remains of dead mice lie behind the bathroom door.
     “They’re crazy,” says Witherspoon, a former cosmetologist and business owner. “My stuff was packed up. They come in here and throw my stuff around and leave it on the floor. The fools work for the church. All of my books, magazines and church stuff, and even my Bible are messed up. They spray (pesticides) on top of my things. I just need to get out of here.”
     Witherspoon is not alone in longing for a way out of neglect and abuse. 
    According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of all Adult Protective Services cases involve elder abuse. Over 2.15 million cases are reported each year. In Michigan, about 90,000 seniors are victims of elder abuse every year, with many of these crimes going unreported.
     "The abuse of older people is on the rise; for the 141 million older people worldwide this has serious individual and societal costs," says Alana Officer, Senior Health Adviser, Department of Ageing and Life Course at the World Health Organization (WHO). "We must do much more to prevent and respond to the increasing frequency of different forms of abuse."
     Elder abuse is any act which causes harm to an older person, age 60 and older, and is often carried out by someone they know and trust, such as a family member or friend. The abuse may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual and can include mistreatment and neglect. 
     "Elder abuse is rarely discussed in policy circles, less prioritized for research and addressed by only a handful of organizations," notes Dr Etienne Krug, Director of the WHO Department for the Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention. "Governments must protect all people from violence. We must work to shed light on this important societal challenge, understand how best to prevent it, and help put in place the measures needed."
     The Detroit Area Agency on Aging is working to shed light on elder abuse and partnered with Second Ebenezer Church, Greater Burnett Baptist Church and Life Line Center to create an Elder Abuse Toolkit that was revealed during a kickoff for a pilot program this month. 
     “We’ve been working with seniors for a number of years and this pilot project is something that not only will help seniors within our congregation but throughout the community. We certainly want to be a part of the solution to prevent a problem that seems to go unrecognized,” said Bishop Edgar Vann of Second Ebenezer Church.
     The agency hopes that partnering with churches will raise awareness on the problem and motivate individuals to speak openly with other members and religious leaders about their circumstances.
     “Many seniors will not report abuse to social service organizations or human service government agencies, however a great number of older adults feel comfortable sharing their concern with members or leaders in the churches they attend,” says Charisse Ross, DAAA Chief Program Officer. “This pilot program is one of the first funded by the state to raise awareness and promote elder abuse prevention efforts by educating and training Faith-Based organizations how to deal with and help prevent elder abuse.”
  The DAAA will host a summit showcasing the Elder Abuse Toolkit on September 29. To register for the Summit Event call to RSVP: (313) 446-4444 ext. 5259, or contact Tamara Perrin via email at perrint@daaa1a.org.
  Recognizing signs of elder abuse is key to successfully dealing with the problem. The following are five signs:
 1. Physical abuse marked by the appearance of bruises, broken bones, burns, abrasions, pressure marks or odd explanations for injuries. 
2. Neglect is displayed by wearing dirty clothes, soiled diapers, having bedsores, unusual weight loss, living in a messy home, or lacking essential medical aides like hearing aids, canes or glasses. 
3. Verbal or emotional abuse displayed by withdrawal and apathy, unusual behavior, such as biting or rocking, nervous or fearful behavior especially around the caregiver, strained or tense relationship between caregiver and elder, caregiver who is snapping or yelling at the elder, and forced isolation by the family member/caregiver. 
4. Sexual abuse shown by bruises around the breasts, bruises around the genital area, evidence of venereal disease, vaginal or rectal bleeding, difficulty walking or standing, depressed or withdrawn behavior and flirtation or touchiness by the caregiver. 
5. Financial exploitation indicated by bills not being paid, money disappearing and unaccounted for, caregiver taking money for a purchase that doesn't arrive, unusual purchases that your loved one didn't used to make, increased use of credit cards, more frequent withdrawals of cash and adding someone new to bank accounts or credit cards.
  Although Witherspoon currently lives alone, she is a survivor of financial exploitation and neglect. Up until two years ago, her daughter and son-in-law collected her social security checks and left her to fend for herself.
  “I haven’t seen my daughter in years,” she added. “I don’t know if she’s dead or alive. My daughter and her husband were getting my social security checks until 2014. I went to the police station, and the police didn’t do anything. I went to the Social Security office on Michigan Avenue, and an old white man helped me to get my social security checks. They were sending my checks to my daughter’s husband’s P.O. Box. My daughter and that fool went and got all of my belongings and money. He’s on crack. They just took my money and didn’t give me a bus ticket out of my check. Bless that old white man. I’ve been getting them now since 2015. Now, I need someone to tell my story to help me to get out of here. I just want to live in peace and be able to see my grand-kids again, before I die.”