The abuse of adults over the age of 60 takes different forms in Puerto Rico, usually disguised as silence: six out of seven cases go unreported.
Pain, disappointment, and shame are among the reasons for elder abuse to be widely under-reported.
Some victims of elder abuse are ashamed to tell anyone that a family member –including children and grandchildren- is the abuser.
And this happens in eight out of ten cases reported, according to data provided by AARP (American Associaton of Retired Persons).
"It is more difficult when the abuse comes from a family member because seniors are ashamed to say it or it is difficult to accuse their adult children or grandchildren," said yesterday Jose Acarón, director of AARP Puerto Rico. "It doesn't just happen against those who are vulnerable, like bedridden people. Elder abuse can also be against people 60 years old who are in full (mental and physical) capacity because it is an abuse of trust.
According to data from complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman for the Elderly, between October 2017 and September 2018, most cases involve negligence (35.9 percent) and financial abuse (29.3 percent).
Although no information was provided to compare these figures with previous years, Acarón noted that all forms of elder abuse have the potential to increase, since this is a growing population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau Community Survey, in 2017, 21.8 percent of Puerto Rico´s population was 62 or older. In 2010, it was 17 percent, representing an increase of 4.8 percentage points.
"Puerto Rico is the third most ageing country in the region, after Canada and Cuba. The island's economic situation, along with an exodus of young people and stereotypes in our society that the elderly are a burden and not a social asset, all this leads to physical and emotional abuse, financial exploitation and abandonment," said the director of AARP on the island.
For Acarón, elder financial abuse is on the rise. "There are people taking them out of the elder care centers and having them at home, not because they want to take care of them, but to get their Social Security check, and others are forcing them to take reverse mortgages to divide the money," he said.
Zoimé Álvarez Rubio, executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Banking Association, defined financial abuse when an individual “uses of the funds, property, or resources of a senior or disabled citizen for personal benefit.”
She added that this can take the form of fraud, embezzlement of funds, falsification of documents and files, coercion, transfer of ownership or blocking access to a senior´s assets.
Financial abuse can also happen by phone, internet or email, according to Eric I. Bustillo, director of the Miami Regional Office of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico.
Sometimes, people they trust take their bank card and withdraw money from the account without their authorization, explained Acarón.
Abusers may also people seniors don´t know, said Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico. She recounted the case of José Andrés Colón Santos, who in 2018 was sentenced in Federal Court to eight years in prison and five years on supervised release for committing bank fraud against 12 people.
"Colón Santos admitted to having illegally enriched himself by obtaining bank account information and personal information as well as credit and debit card numbers and passwords from victims between 69 to 83 years old," she said. The man looked for the victim's numbers on a phone directory and obtained personal information from them by pretending to be a bank officer.
The Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions lists some warning signs of elder financial abuse including banking activities inconsistent with the customer's usual habits, unexpected increases in debts, pattern of bearer checks bearer or cash, and signatures on checks or other documents when a senior cannot write or understand what he or she signed.
According to Acarón, although elder abuse affects individuals of any socioeconomic condition, like what happens in cases of abandonment, "financial abuse is more often among the population in a good economic situation.”
He added that abandonment is a common form of elder abuse in Puerto Rico. It also happens when caregivers or service providers fail to meet the basic needs of older adults, such as food, shelter, clothing or medical care.
In an effort to raise public awareness in order to have more cases of abuse reported, the U.S. Attorney´s Office, the state Department of Justice, the Family Affairs Department, the Office of the Ombudsman for the Elderly and AARP Puerto Rico launched yesterday a joint campaign called "Abuse Can Not Be Ignored. Indifference is Abuse.”
The campaign seeks to raise awareness about the abuse of the elderly and its various forms
“Older people have the right and power to make their decisions and live their lives without being coerced, minimized, or used for the benefit of others,” concluded Acarón.