KEN EDWARDS CENTER — WISE & Healthy Aging will reinforce and expand its capability to protect seniors through a new partnership with the California Elder Justice Workgroup.

Incorporating the workgroup into WISE and Healthy Aging seemed a natural fit, said Jeannette Hartman, WISE’s benefits enrollment manager, because the Santa Monica-based nonprofit has been involved with the workgroup steering committee since day one.

The new relationship will give the workgroup the resources it needs in terms of support and visibility to continue its important work in combating elder abuse and neglect, a growing problem across the state and nation.

Having a home base is critical to the eight workgroup members continuing their efforts — its original funding ran out, and they’re working as volunteers said Workgroup Chair Lisa Nerenberg.

“The grant was over, and we needed a more stable base. We didn’t have one,” Nerenberg said. “We’re a voluntary organization. That’s one of the reasons we affiliated with WISE, so we can do some fundraising and really build the organization.”

The workgroup, launched in 2009, has been a virtual organization that brought together elder support and advocacy groups across the state to streamline efforts to keep seniors safe from abuse.

It’s an outgrowth of the Archstone Foundation’s Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative, which received $8 million over five years to fund a total of 36 projects aimed at improving life for California’s seniors.

The goal of the initiative, and the workgroup it spawned, is to raise awareness about elder abuse and help coordinate state and local agencies to battle the growing problem.

Elder abuse, broadly defined, is the victimization of people over the age of 65. It can take many forms, including physical, sexual, financial, mental and plain neglect.

According to the National Center for Elder Abuse, somewhere between 700,000 and 3.5 million cases of elder abuse occur every year. Only one in five of those are reported.

A challenge facing organizations that struggle to protect seniors against these kinds of abuse is that fact that service providers tend to define elder abuse differently, making it hard to ensure victims get the help and intervention they need.

That hurdle became the genesis of the workgroup.

“The project got started from direct experience serving victims,” Nerenberg said. “Several of our members were doing training in mandatory reporting. When we made reports, we got different responses around the state. Adult Protective Services units were defining the problem differently.”

While the workgroup was operating independently, it helped address that by creating a blueprint with clear steps and goals for state and local agencies to create uniform response criteria for abuse reports and sought to improve training for law enforcement to recognize and respond to such crimes.

It hopes to continue its work using the resources that WISE and Healthy Aging has available, Nerenberg said.

“WISE is really a tremendous asset,” she said. “It has a very talented staff, who’ve been helping us in the area of development and communications. They will continue to do that.”

Developing a broad-based, targeted approach to fight elder abuse now is critical as the number of seniors rises, said Gina Satriano, the deputy in charge of the elder abuse section of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

According to a study conducted by the UC Irvine Center for Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect, a workgroup partner, there are currently four million people in the United States with dementia.

That number is expected to climb to 14 million by 2015, Satriano said.

Mental deterioration like dementia opens older adults up to be victims of abuse, and the rates will only climb as the population does.

“You can’t work in this area and not feel passion for your victim, so it scares me for them,” she said.

As the number of seniors grows, the amount of money put into protecting them is dropping.

The California fiscal crisis led to major cuts in Adult Protective Services and in-home supportive care, two programs which ensured that seniors were being visited regularly by trustworthy adults that could make sure they were not being taken advantage of.

“The availability of fewer and fewer resources makes communication and the exchange of information all that much more important,” Hartman said. “We need synergy, so we’re not duplicating services.”

At the local level, WISE and Healthy Aging has a new partnership with the police department to identify seniors most at risk for abuse and neglect.

The nonprofit’s staff will then help the department screen the abuse reports received.

A big component of reducing elder abuse both here at home and in the state is raising awareness. Elder abuse, by its very nature underreported and rarely seen, flies largely under the radar, Hartman said.

“We could go a long way further to make people aware of elder abuse in all of its dimensions,” Hartman said. “If they were aware, hopefully there would be none.”

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