Mickey Rooney’s acting career spanned more than five decades, and he earned millions of dollars from the many movies in which he appeared. But several years ago, he lost much of his fortune and his independence when two of his stepchildren bega-n financially and psychologically abusing him.
Rooney testified before a United States Senate Panel on Aging in March 2011. He told the senators about the horrors of his predicament and how difficult it was to get out of it.
The organizers of the June 15 symposium on elder abuse at Long Beach’s Alpert Jewish Community Center showed the audience a video clip of Rooney’s testimony, during which he told the Senate panel how two of his most trusted family members gained control of his finances and his personal life in order to steal his assets. “What some people see as generosity can be the exploitation of elderly people,” Rooney said. “In my case, I was stripped of my ability to make even the most basic decisions. My daily life became unbearable.”
Rooney added that when he tried to get information from various institutions as to why he was no longer allowed to make his own decisions, he was told that it was none of his business. Later, with the help of other family members, Rooney obtained a court injunction stripping his two unscrupulous stepchildren of their power over his life and finances, but the experience motivated him to get involved in the crusade to put an end to elder abuse. Rooney strongly urged the Senate to pass more stringent federal laws protecting older Americans, and he encouraged seniors to join the fight. “You have the right to control your own life and be happy,” he said. “For yourself, end the cycle of abuse, and do not allow yourself to be silenced any more.”
In another video clip shown at the symposium, an elderly Wisconsin woman named Patsy told stories of how her own husband had been physically, emotionally and sexually abusing her for years. She explained that fear of retaliation from her husband kept her silenced during most of her marriage. “It’s a fear that comes over us,” she said. “It’s like a mist, until one day you know you have to deal with it.”
With the help of agencies in Wisconsin, Patsy divorced her husband and was able to move to a place where he could no longer harm her.
Like Rooney, Patsy encouraged victims of abuse to speak out and seek help from friends, neighbors and governmental agencies. “The act of just being able to tell someone is the first step toward getting free of the abuse and being healed,” she said.
While thousand of elders are physically, sexually and psychologically abused every year, many others are financially abused. Rigo Reyes, of the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs told the audience that elder financial abuse is dramatically on the rise in Los Angeles County.
Reyes described a crime saga that spanned about 25 years. It involved a married couple that, in 1986, began illegally taking over the homes of elderly people confined to nursing homes. “They took over about 100 homes and were renting them out to unsuspecting people,” he said. “By the time we found out about it, they were collecting more than $1 million in rent per year from homes that did not belong to them.”
Reyes said his department worked hard and long with several local law-enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office on the case. About a year ago, the agencies finally succeeded in sending the couple to state prisons and returning the homes to the rightful owners or their heirs. “Most of the owners were in nursing homes and had no friend or family members looking out for them,” Reyes noted.
Ralph Pascual, Los Angeles County Adult Protective Services (APS) Supervisor, told the audience about a very serious case of self-neglect that he discovered in Arcadia in 2005. “I went to the client’s home and discovered that she was gravely mentally disabled and not able to care for herself,” he said. “Her condo smelled so bad that I thought there might be a corpse in it.”
Pascual found no corpse, but he did find about 10 years’ worth of garbage, walls that undulated with crawling insects, and a large population of rats freely roaming throughout the home. “I called the paramedics, and she was hospitalized for a month,” he said. “When the client was finally well enough to care for herself, she agreed to receive regular outpatient treatment.” He noted that if someone had not reported the problem to APS, the woman would likely have died in the filth of her condo, and he wondered why no one had called years earlier. He added that the City of Arcadia spent $30,000 of grant money to hire a contractor to clean up the house before the woman moved back.
Pascual, Reyes and several other speakers stressed that one of the challenges of trying to rescue elderly victims of abuse or self-neglect is that many of them are used to being strong and independent. They do not want to admit that they need help, and they are ashamed to tell anyone that someone has harmed them in some way.
“Your suspicion is all that is necessary for APS to investigate,” Pascual said. “Please make sure you report anything you think might be elder abuse or neglect to APS or to another agency that is charged with protecting the elderly. We would rather have the opportunity to investigate than to take the chance of allowing a dangerous situation to continue.”
Several speakers noted that investigators of alleged elder abuse are not permitted to reveal the identity of the person making the report.
Kathleen Kosche, LCSW, of the Memorial Counseling Association, stressed that abuse takes a very serious toll on seniors. She explained that everyone, young or old, feels terrible when they are abused, but there are resiliency issues with the elderly. “Their ability to bounce back is not as strong as it used to be,” she said. “Elderly people often feel helpless and hopeless.”
The Long Beach Elder Abuse Prevention Team– the coordinator of the symposium– made flyers and other printed materials available to attendees. One flyer contains a list of signs and symptoms of elder abuse. They include: unexplained physical injuries; agitation, trembling, confusion or disorientation; emotional distress like crying and/or depression; withdrawnness; lack of emotion; self-destructive behavior; social and physical isolation; unexplained loss of financial independence or control; and a home in disarray, lacking basic necessities. The hand-out also urges readers to be concerned if: an older adult appears fearful of a caregiver or family members; an older adult appears reluctant to respond when questioned; a caregiver or family member seeks to prevent an elder from interacting privately with a concerned party; an older adult, family member or caregiver gives conflicting accounts of an incident; or a caregiver or family member is indifferent or angry towards an elder and refuses to provide necessary assistance.
Those who suspect elder abuse or neglect can contact the following agencies:
Los Angeles County APS
Long Beach Police Department
Signal Hill Police Department
Elder Abuse Hotline
(877) 477-3646 or (800) 992-1660
Long Term Care Ombudsman Crisis Number
(800) 334-9473 or (310) 394-9871
This article was the second in a two-part series.