Campus addresses elder abuse issues

By Tracy Culumber

Although the elderly make up nearly 9 percent of the population in Champaign County, there are no University Registered Student Organizations that focus solely on aiding senior citizens. Several University students and faculty members said the overall lack of interest reflects the growing stigma surrounding the elderly and laws to protect them.

After the 2000 census, there were roughly 17,500 people over age 65 living in the county. The regional Department of Public Health acknowledges 8 state-run and privately owned care facilities serving the community.

Amy Downing, University alumna and employee in ACES, regularly visited a resident at Carle Arbours, a Savoy nursing home located at 302 Burwash Ave. She said she never encountered another college student on her regular visits to the facility.

“It is pretty clear that care for the elderly is not at the top of anyone’s priority list,” Downing said.

Danielle Moushon, director of the Senior Citizen Project, a program of Volunteer Illini Projects, and sophomore in Business, said although her program attracts some students, there is still a great need for volunteers.

“People associate the elderly with boring and possibly even messy volunteering,” Moushon said.

Alex Chase, graduate student, said younger people shy away from working with the elderly because it reminds them of their mortality, rather than their youth.

“It is a bigger sacrifice for people to put up with those unpleasant feelings,” Chase said. “Our society recognizes (the problem), but it is on the low end of the totem pole.”

Chase is the 2006-2007 Editor in Chief of the Elder Law Journal, an academic publication published twice annually by the College of Law students and the first scholarly publication addressing elder law issues in the country.

Laura Watts, program director of the Canadian Centre for Elder Law Studies at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, spoke at the College of Law for the annual Ann F. Baum Memorial Elder Law Lecture on Monday. Watts explained that although the lack of student attention does not injure the elderly directly, the absence of financial and cultural support for elder rights in the United States and Canada can prove disastrous.

“It is different to assault, neglect, abuse or steal from an older person than a young person,” Watts said. “Statutes for punishment are essentially unenforceable.”

She said there are really no means to enforce crimes without local guardianship. For example, elderly people will call the police but sometimes the police will assume that the person is senile, and they will not respond with as much vigor as they would a normal call.

David Johnson, assistant dean of communications for the College of Law, said he never took elder laws into consideration until his mother was diagnosed with cancer last summer and encountered various financial and legal problems.

“I learned the startling truth that families do not recognize until it happens,” Johnson said.

Although there has been no notable increase in elder abuse in Champaign County, often abuse to the elderly goes unreported or unpunished.

Professor Richard Kaplan, faculty advisor for the journal, said “elder abuse” encompasses all crimes committed against victims over 65-years-old. He said 52 percent of all reported elder abuse cases are financial exploitations.

Eugene Garmize, future editor for the journal and graduate student, said while Illinois has some of the most comprehensive Elder Law legislation in the nation, he does not foresee any legislation in the near future that will effectively help the elderly.

In December 2005, The Illinois House passed the Reconciliation Bill, which reduced access to Medicaid and Medicare among other actions. On February 16, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced plans to repair the current infrastructure of the current senior service system for home and community-based services as part of the 2007 Illinois budget.

“Too often we see these as institutional problems and not societal problems,” said Heidi Hurd, dean of the College of Law.