Responding to Elder Abuse: Catalyzing self and society to act

By Philip C. Marshall

There is a compelling case for Sumner Redstone and Viacom to settle litigation that has ensued in three states and cost millions of dollars. Bringing an end to this public dispute, with its cast of characters and surrounding drama, can understandably be seen as good for business.

But what is good for the man, who at 93 has likely been traumatized by cognitive incapacity, undue influence, and isolation? The once powerful media mogul now plays a bit part in the empire he created. How can we, as a society, mobilize to protect elders, regardless of their status, from being marginalized and abused in the twilight of their lives?

Redstone’s compromised condition has brought back vivid memories of my grandmother’s circumstances in her last years and has led me to revisit the same question. How can we learn from these cases to create a comprehensive system that identifies elder abuse at its earliest stages, assists vulnerable and victimized older adults and holds the perpetrators of these crimes accountable?

Awareness isn’t enough. Action is imperative.

My grandmother Brooke Astor was subject to undue influence by her son, my father, while vulnerable and suffering from cognitive incapacity. He isolated her from friends and family and manipulated her to take control of her assets, including millions of dollars she had bequeathed to New York City charities.

Make no mistake about it: she was the victim of elder abuse. It wasn’t uncommon, however, for the circumstances to be characterized as a ‘family feud’ among the rich and famous. I see echoes of this in the Redstone case.

But such perceptions discount the reality that elder abuse is indiscriminate. It affects millions of individuals, families, and communities nationwide, cutting across all social, religious, cultural and economic lines. Yet it remains under the radar and underreported.

A National Institute of Justice study estimates one in 10 seniors (older than 60) has been the victim of at least one form of abuse in the past 12 months. More than half of elder financial abuse in the U.S. is committed by family members, caregivers and “friends.” Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, published in 2011, documented an elder abuse incidence rate that was “nearly 24 times greater than the number of cases referred to social service, law enforcement or legal authorities who have the capacity as well as the responsibility to assist older adult victims.”

In addition to financial exploitation and psychological manipulation, elder abuse takes other insidious forms: physical and sexual, neglect and abandonment. Our collective silence protects perpetrators, not their victims. Today, victims of this crime may be strangers. Tomorrow, they may be our loved ones, or perhaps, in the future, ourselves. Seniors and society deserve more.

Frequently, as happened to my grandmother, there is poly-victimization and re-victimization that escalates. Without awareness and proactive prevention, elder abuse — whatever forms it takes — can happen to any senior, time and again.

In helping my fragile, isolated and abused grandmother, I was not alone. Her abuse galvanized a collective response by her informal circle of support: family, friends, staff and caregivers all united by compassion and a common cause. We were individuals with a great mixed skill-set and the strength of our diversity contributed much to our success in saving my grandmother and then helping prosecutors bring my father and one of my grandmother’s attorneys to justice.

Until early summer, there was little evidence of action on behalf of Redstone’s circle of support. But Sumner Redstone’s granddaughter Keryn came forward in May and in early August filed a cross-claim in Massachusetts probate court supporting Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman’s allegations that years of careful estate planning by Sumner Redstone were dramatically changed by his daughter, Shari Redstone, just as her father’s cognitive capacity declined. On August 26, Massachusetts Probate Judge George Phelan sought to protect Ms. Redstone’s interests and emphasized that she be allowed to visit her grandfather. Judge Phelan remained concerned about Mr. Redstone’s competency.

Will Ms. Redstone’s actions be a “Carlson catalyst,” empowering others to follow? When former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson acted against the network’s former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, she empowered others to come forward with their own experiences of sexual harassment after years of being silenced by corporate culture and complicity, and legal contracts.

As perpetrators — my late father among them — know, psychological manipulation is extremely effective in further compromising seniors who already have diminished capacity and lack the capacity to testify in court. Through this isolation and manipulation, perpetrators also successfully thwart the efforts of other family, friends and neighbors — the senior’s “circle of support” — to help.

Elder justice is in its infancy compared to other movements that define our social, legal, and moral obligations: justice for victims of sexual assault and survivors of domestic violence, for example. But advances are being achieved through research, practice and policy.

Informed, elder justice professionals are engaging and embracing all stakeholders. There is an understanding that fostering community concern and capacity for support is just as important as the criminal justice response and “restoration,” which is damage control after the fact.

These professionals are strengthening their approach to “elder ecology,” working not for, but with, elders; with their circles of support; and with their communities. They provide support along the way and capacity to come forward when elder abuse is suspected. We must build upon this work by borrowing bystander intervention models from other fields to create systems, services and support that enable us — individuals and society as a whole — to act.

For my grandmother, and many others, elder abuse is not a family affair or a civil matter. It is a crime and needs to be treated as such so victims and their supporters are not re-victimized. If I could do it over again, I would have called the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office immediately.

As a grandchild who had help from “concerned others” in saving his grandmother, I so hope others in Sumner Redstone’s circle of support follow suit and stand up to affirm Keryn Redstone’s action. Even more so, I hope all of us, informed and empowered, act to serve and save our elders.

We are all bystanders. We can either turn our backs or extend a hand to elders in need. It is my hope that awareness and action result in elder abuse being treated as the crime that it is, so that our response is commensurate with seniors’ worth and vulnerability. Otherwise, to be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse.

Philip C. Marshall is a professor and director of the Historic Preservation Program, Roger Williams University, and elder justice advocate at beyondbrooke.org