The Richland County Sheriff’s Dept.—one of six LIVE PD-featured law enforcement agencies—establishes new elder-focused team. Writer, editor, and military analyst W. Thomas Smith Jr. has long been recognized as an expert in infantry combat, special operations, and counterterrorism. But his latest—though not entirely dissimilar—work as a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) office of public information has led him into a somewhat unlikely venture. It’s one for which he expresses a passion that is also held by his boss, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott: The protection of society’s most vulnerable.
On the RCSD website, Sheriff Lott said: “Senior citizens in my estimation, are the heart of our community.” Smith agrees, which is why he recently sought Sheriff Lott’s approval for establishing and now directing the department’s new Elder Abuse Awareness Team.
The team is not an investigative body, as Smith is quick to point out. Investigating elder abuse crimes fall under RCSD’s Victims Services Unit. The team Smith directs, however, is tasked with creating a greater awareness of elder abuse by ensuring that the county’s citizens—young and old alike—better understand what elder abuse is, what to look for, and how to recognize its often-hidden signs and symptoms.
Nearing national Elder Abuse Awareness Month in June (and June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day), we sat down with Smith and asked him to describe elder abuse, his team, why him, and what we can do to combat the little-known problem of elder abuse.
Chris Carter: What is elder abuse?
W. Thomas Smith, Jr.: Elder abuse is simply the abuse and mistreatment of older people who are generally the most vulnerable and often the most isolated of our citizens. I won’t get into who or what kind of person might perpetrate such evil, other than to say it could be anyone, really, from a close family member to a caregiver to those with perhaps even a marginal relationship with the victim.
Elder abuse manifests itself in many ways. And it’s not just physical abuse; though that is indeed one form of it. Elder abuse is also emotional abuse. Things like browbeating, ridiculing, belittling, threatening, frightening; and mental abuse. For instance, upsetting someone to the point they become confused, think also of ‘gaslighting,’ where a victim is manipulated into believing they are overreacting so much so that they [the victim] begin to question their own sanity. There is also financial abuse: Either taking money or guilting the victim into giving it up. Then there is neglect and generally depriving another of love, kindness, comfort, and care.
Why an elder abuse awareness team?
To create greater awareness of what elder abuse is, what the signs and symptoms are, and how to report— and the necessity of reporting—potential abuses of the elderly to law enforcement.
For the sake of our elderly family members, other aging and vulnerable loved ones, and the broader elderly community; all of us need to know what this evil is, how to see it for what it is, recognize its signs, and how to fight it!
Somebody once laughingly said to me, ‘You love old people.’ I remember being initially surprised by that remark because I always thought everybody loved old people. Then I started thinking about it and realized, not everybody does. But, yes, indeed, I do love elderly people. I always have, even when I was a kid. Elderly people are ‘senior’ to us, and not simply in age, but in social ranking. In terms of respect. At least, in my opinion, they should be.
Years ago, when I spent a half year on Okinawa, I was moved by how—unlike here in the West where youth and youthfulness are so prized and valued above all other age groups—the Japanese and other Asian cultures, place the elderly in the position of highest respect and esteem. They’ve got it right.
The elderly, whether they are appreciated or not, are any society’s very precious resource.
The elderly who are with us today are those who fought and wrested victory from the enemy in World War II, and they later stemmed the tide of the enemy in Korea.
All those tough young Marines we see in the pictures fighting on Iwo Jima are today either very old men or passed on.
The elderly people with us today rebuilt our nation in the years following the Great Depression and World War II, and they fought and won the toughest battles of the Civil Rights era. Everything we have, they gave us. They did this all the while keeping our families together, largely remaining committed to their marriages, and establishing the legacy of freedom and prosperity we now hold, but far-too-often take for granted. Sorry if some of this sounds trite, but it’s true. And we need to be reminded of it and them.
So all of that, and in terms of ‘why me?’ I guess, within my own family as the oldest son, it has always fallen to me to be something of a protector and defender for anyone whether I wanted to be or not. This has been so since I was about 10 years old. My dad figuratively hammered this responsibility into me, and my mom and everyone else expected it of me. And I suppose the responsibility of it all sort of stuck.
How does elder abuse differ from, say, child abuse?
I’m not so sure elder abuse differs from any other form of abuse. But the victims and their vulnerabilities are clearly different.
Think about it this way: If a natural or man-made disaster strikes—be it a severe storm, a terrorist attack, some sort of industrial disaster which bleeds over into the environment, or the threat of any of these—those who suffer the most emotionally (which translates into physical stress) are those who are less able to take care of themselves physically and mentally. These are the most vulnerable people—usually children, the sick, and the elderly—and so what they suffer in a given-disaster is generally worse than what a physically fit young adult will experience.
So then we have the different experiences of the most vulnerable. Let’s say, you have a terrific hurricane bearing down on a community. Power goes out. Winds pick up. Danger is swirling all around. Children are frightened as are the elderly, and frankly, anyone with good sense is frightened. But, if you give a child a blanket, a teddy bear, and a bit of reassurance that everything will be alright, the child will usually, comfortably fall asleep in whatever safe space he or she is given, even if it is a corner of a floor somewhere.
This is not so with the elderly who well-know the threats to their safety (maybe they’ve experienced similar dangers in their past), and they recognize the fact that their world with all of its existing problems is now turning upside down. Their fears are: Where will they get their medicines if the pharmacy is closed? Will their lifetime of treasured possessions be destroyed? Will their homes become flooded and unsafe? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay dry and warm? How drastically will their existing schedules change? Will they be able to physically climb out of a window if they have to?
These are but a few of the questions which speak to an elderly person’s inherent vulnerabilities. Kids don’t really think about those kinds of things. Plus there’s the physical health resiliency variable with kids that the elderly simply do not have.
In the elderly experience, just because a hurricane is coming doesn’t mean that one’s chronic back pain and leg pain will lessen.
So this speaks to the unique vulnerabilities of the elderly, which also makes them more susceptible to abuse by others. But rarely is it recognized, much less talked about.
What can the ordinary person do to fight elder abuse?
Empathy and awareness. Know what the elderly have to deal with in addition to their often daily aches and pains (which we can’t feel), and their mental and emotional limitations (which we may not have). Be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of elder abuse, and always be ready to communicate the signs and symptoms to others, especially to those who are best equipped to do something about it.