Our population isn’t getting any younger and soon there’ll be more elder people in the United States than ever before. At the same time that the population is growing, we know that a startling number of elders face abusive conditions. Every year an estimated 5 million, or 1 in 10, older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation, according to the Council on Elder Abuse. That’s only part of the picture. Experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, as many as 23.5 cases go unreported.

COVID-19 has brought its own set of difficulties. Older persons are at more risk of mortality and severe disease following infection. The pandemic has resulted in seniors isolating more than they may have before. If abuse is occurring, it may go unnoticed by others.

In Lincoln County, the Adult Protective Services Department of the Department of Social Services is tasked with fielding complaints and tips about elder abuse. The department covers both the elderly and disabled adults, according to Bethea.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of exploitation,” she said. “This could be someone taking an elderly or disabled person to the bank and making the make withdrawals, or a debit card is given to a person to go out and purchase needed items and instead they may do that and help themselves to things as well. Transfer of land is another form. It’s been on the rise for quite some time.”

Unfortunately, an elderly or disabled person is as prone to abuse or neglect as a child, Bethea added.

“As they age and get older, they become more dependent upon others to help them meet the activities of their daily living,” she said. “That can sometimes put them in this type of situation.”

Physical abuse isn’t as much of a problem as caretaker neglect which can take many forms. A caretaker assumes total responsibility for an individual to make sure their needs are met on a daily basis. Sometimes an individual is completely dependent, and a breakdown may occur. 

“Someone may be isolated and left in a room alone,” Bethea said. “Another example is skin breakdown which can occur in a diabetic if the proper precautions aren’t taken. Each and every situation is so individual.”

Anyone can report suspected abuse. The Department of Social Services is mandated by law to carry out this particular service. 

“If you suspect this is happening, you can call our agency,” Bethea said. “We have criteria by which we screen a report. We have timeframes by which we have to examine a case if that’s necessary. Adult protective services are very invasive, and we want to make sure that when we go out that we need to. All of our other services are by request, but adult protective services are not a requested service.”

Some of the signs of potential abuse include isolation, unexplained cuts, bruises, sprains or broken bones, injuries that occur over and over, lack of medical attention, a person may all of a sudden act frightened, depression, confusion or a loss of interest in things, changes in behavior that can’t be explained, being unkept and weight loss.

Sometimes issues can be resolved, but other times, guardianship may need to be sought through the courts.

“We take the responsibility of our jobs every seriously,” Bethea said. “There are so many people without family now. Sometimes the social workers are the only folks some of these people see. With the current situation with COVID we’re seeing more isolation. We’ve worked really hard to try to maintain contact on a consistent basis.”

An individual doesn’t have to know for sure that abuse is happening, they may just suspect it, but it’s important to call the social workers on staff at Adult Protective Services.

“You don’t have to know, but if you have a general idea or feel that this may be happening, then I do encourage you give us a call and we’ll look at the information and screen it appropriately according to criteria and make a determination if we make a report or not,” Bethea said. “The population is aging. People are living longer, and people want to live and age in place. We do everything that we can to make sure that’s a possibility for them.”

Lincoln County Adult Protective Services will also respond to potential abuse cases in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Each report receives a two-tier review by trained social workers.

In each county in North Carolina, the County Department of Social Services is mandated to provide Adult Protective Services. This service is designed to protect the disabled adult who is abused, neglected, exploited, and in need of protection as defined by North Carolina State Law. An essential component of the service is the preservation of the client’s right to self-determination recognizing the need for the least restrictive plan. 

Phone lines are staffed 24 hours a day by Lincoln County Social Services. Telephone numbers are (704) 732-1969 8 a.m. -5 p.m. Monday through Friday. After 5 p.m., weekends and holidays is (704) 735-8202. To make a report in person, Lincoln County Adult Services is located at 1136 East Main Street in Lincolnton. The mailing address is P.O. Box 130, Lincolnton, N.C. 28092.

What is needed to report:

  • Adult’s name and address
  • Age or birth date
  • Explain the situation and why you feel the person is abused, neglected, exploited and in need of protection.  
  • Names of others who may help provide information regarding the situation

The reporter’s name is confidential.

For more information view the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services website; www.ncdhhs.gov

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