As the population ages, the problem of elder abuse is expected to spread. Stiff penalties for abusers might help keep the problem in check.
The four-month jail term meted out this week in an Ottawa County case of shocking elder abuse has put a spotlight on a largely hidden social problem. While child abuse and domestic violence have rightly been elevated in the public eye, the abuse, neglect and exploitation of the elderly warrants attention as well. That's especially true as the population nationally and in Michigan grows grayer.
What's more, the jail term given Ottawa County resident Carol Maneke for leaving her father in squalid living conditions has prompted criticism about whether the punishment fits the crime. Her father, Max Canfield, 87, died in a hospital in 2006, a week after being taken out of a filthy Tallmadge Township duplex. Maneke lived in the adjacent half of the duplex and was her father's legal guardian. According to relatives and police, he died from malnutrition-related weakness. It's ironic and disconcerting that Maneke was sentenced on Monday, which was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
The authorities got involved in this case after Mr. Canfield's granddaughter said she was not allowed to see him and became concerned about his welfare. Police and social workers found the decorated World War II veteran lying on a soiled mattress with adult diapers, trash, pop cans and animal feces all around. They had to tape and seal their pant legs before entering the roach-infested duplex.
Maneke's prosecution on charges of vulnerable adult abuse was delayed in part because she moved to Pennsylvania and authorities had trouble finding her. She could have received up to nine months in jail, according to sentencing guidelines for her conviction on a charge of second-degree vulnerable adult abuse. Police looked at whether Maneke could be charged with some form of homicide but decided the evidence did not support it because Mr. Canfield had other medical issues that may have contributed to his decline.
Nevertheless, the high end of the more modest charge certainly would have sent a stronger message that sub-standard care for the elderly is not acceptable.
A 2006 report by a state task force on elder abuse estimated 73,000 of Michigan's older citizens were victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation. The Ottawa County case puts a human face on the cold hard numbers and is a stark reminder that the elderly can be the most vulnerable among us, especially if age diminishes their physical or mental capabilities.
According to the Census Bureau, 10.3 percent of Kent County's population was 65 or older in 2007, 10.7 percent of Ottawa County's and 12.7 percent statewide. Most of us know and care about people who are older than we are; or hope to grow old someday ourselves. We have a vested interest in ensuring that the elderly are properly cared for.
Because studies show that the most likely abusers of the elderly are their own family members, it's a problem that can go unnoticed and unreported. National statistics suggest only one in five cases is reported.
We can all play a role in making Michigan a safe place to grow old by being as vigilant about elder abuse as we are becoming about child abuse and domestic violence. Our senior's golden years should not be tarnished by abuse, neglect and exploitation. Those who cross the line by abusing the elderly should pay an appropriate price. Our courts should see to that.
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