LIMA — Carol Wilcox thought she was coming to live with a friend when she moved to Lima from Kentucky in 2013. The grand jury case synopsis tells a different story.
“Carol said things were good to begin with, but shortly after Carol moved in, Dawn [Reser] and William [Sheets] took control of Carol’s Social Security benefits card,” the document reads. “Dawn and William had started to become mean to her.”
Reser, 46, and Sheets, 57, kept the 66-year-old Wilcox against her will at their home at 1118 S. Atlantic St. They punched and pushed Wilcox. Reser hit her with a baseball bat. They starved her and forced her to defecate in the backyard.
It was during one of those outdoor trips to the bathroom in October 2014 that Wilcox escaped.
Reser and Sheets, sentenced in April, are now in prison. Wilcox is still recovering from her injuries, both emotional and physical.
“Wilcox still fears the defendants and now finds trusting others to be harder,” Wilcox and her brother said in a statement released by Crime Victims Services, which assisted her during the trial.
Advocates for the elderly believe many less sensational cases are unfolding among us, unnoticed and unreported. Concerned by this, and driven by Ohio’s aging population, government officials and advocates are stepping up efforts to increase public awareness.
More senior citizens, more elder abuse cases
Researchers at Miami University of Ohio predict that in 15 years, citizens 60 years old and older will make up 28.6 percent of the state’s population. This means more cases of mistreatment, neglect, exploitation and abuse.
“People are living longer. They’re not dying of things they used to die from,” said Marianne Bradshaw, the director of the new Victims of Crime Act department of the Lima area’s Area Agencies on Aging. “It’s a larger, more vulnerable population because of that.”
Carol Wilcox’s cry for help was just one of 188 that Allen County’s Adult Protective Services unit investigated in fiscal year 2015. The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates 7.6 to 10 percent of seniors experience some form of abuse. Based on population estimates for 2015, that means as many as 2,400 people in Allen County could be experiencing elder abuse.
Why the discrepancies?
The gap between reported cases and actual cases highlights the particular challenges facing elder care investigators. For one, senior citizens are not likely to make reports.
“There’s the embarrassment, the shame,” Bradshaw said. “They think, ‘I don’t want anyone to know this happened to me.’”
Two-thirds of abusers are related to the victim. Such familial bonds can lead to the same kind of co-dependency that plagues victims of domestic violence.
“Many times they’re defending their abuser,” said Michelle Bowen, administrator for Auglaize County’s Department of Job and Family Services.“They’re like, ‘Oh no, I’m okay.’”
It can also be difficult for investigators and prosecutors to develop a case.
“Unfortunately, elderly people don’t make really good witnesses,” said Marilyn Horstman, deputy social services director of Allen County Job and Family Services. “Which is exactly what makes them personally vulnerable.”
Types of elder abuse
On a recent afternoon in Ada, Jayme Richards, executive director of the Columbus-based non-profit Ohio Coalition for Adult Protective Services, led a talk on identifying elder abuse. Most of the 33 people in the room were senior citizens.
“It’s physically abusive behaviors, like punching or choking,” she said. “Forcing a senior citizen to take medications without their consent, that is a form of physical abuse.”
There’s sexual abuse, too, she explained, including rape. There’s emotional abuse, which includes intimidation, ridicule and habitual blaming. According to the Lima Police, Reser and Sheets forced Wilcox to defecate outdoors because they blamed her for plumbing problems.
Financial exploitation, such as Reser’s and Sheet’s theft of Wilcox’s Social Security benefits, is a rising form of elder abuse. It ranges from clear-cut cases of fraud, like reverse-mortgage scams, to more complicated issues of undue influence over an elderly relative’s money.
And there’s neglect, including self-neglect.
“This is when an elderly person just doesn’t have the means to take care of themselves, but they still want their independence,” Richards said. Self-neglect accounts for the largest category of elder abuse in Ohio, with 4,746 validated cases in FY2015. Neglect by others was a distant second, with 1,730 cases.
Questions of consent
For elder abuse investigators, self-neglect and financial exploitation present the biggest challenges. That’s because it’s hard to know whether an elderly person is being abused or whether they’re just making questionable choices.
“It gets really fuzzy about, well, did she want to give all her money to her grandson or son, or did they unduly influence her or coerce her into doing it?” said Allen County’s Marilyn Horstman. “Adults have rights, as long as they are competent.”
“I had one case with a woman who didn’t live at all in the way that her neighbors thought she should,” said Auglaize County’s Michelle Bowen, about a suspected case of self-neglect. “The house is not fantastic, but it’s not dangerous. She can take care of herself. She’s going, ‘I’m okay, guys, leave me alone.’”
Social workers cannot force services on a competent senior citizen if they don’t want them. But Jayme Richardson urged her audience to make the phone call to their local APS department anyway, if they’re concerned about someone.
“At least it gets in the books,” she said.
Such increased reporting is what elder advocates are banking on. Even if the claims do not become validated cases, at least the public awareness is there. It means that a “silent epidemic” is now making a lot of noise.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-292-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.