Abused elders find a leading advocate at Hebrew Home

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Janet Jones was born and raised on Coney Island. At 70, she was living in an apartment in Brooklyn’s Marlboro Houses when she suffered a stroke.

Not long after, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter — who lived with Jones — started taking advantage of her and stealing her money, she said. When police discovered her, she was confined to a back room of her apartment with the windows blacked out.

Eventually in February 2018, Jones found her way to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Justice, an elder abuse shelter at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. In May, the Weinberg Center produced a video about Jones called “Going Home.”

“That’s my grandson’s mother, you know what I mean,” Jones said in the video, still hurt by the betrayal. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Center on Elder Abuse estimates 10 percent of people older than 60 are abused, with 57 percent of those cases coming at the hands of family members.

After 12 months of rehab and the arrest of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter on neglect and larceny charges, Jones was ready to go home. With the help of city agencies and the Weinberg Center, Jones returned to her apartment last January.

“I want to do a little bit of everything I used to do,” Jones said, through tears. “I want to go home.”

Jones is a rare success story in the fight against elder abuse, which Weinberg Center founder and Hebrew Home chief executive Dan Reingold calls an epidemic. Nearly 50 million Americans are older than 65, according to a 2015 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau. Conservative estimates suggest 2 million senior citizens are victims of elder abuse, but Reingold and other elder abuse experts think that number could be higher due to low rates of reporting from abuse victims of all ages.

“If this were a disease and it were affecting this many people, there would be an outcry in Washington, there would be CDC hearings and Senate hearings,” Reingold said.

The Weinberg Center, founded in 2005 as the first elder abuse shelter in the nation, recently hired a public health expert to help combat what Reingold views as a systematic struggle.

“We’re viewing elder abuse as public health epidemic,” he said, “not just a series of sporadic violence against isolated older adults.”

Reingold spoke alongside Bronx and city officials at a news conference last week hosted by borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. The event was scheduled after a series of violent attacks on senior citizens in the Bronx, and ahead of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15.

Diaz promised the New York Police Department would get the “cowards” who assault the elderly, and Bronx district attorney Darcel Clark pledged to prosecute criminals who target the elderly to the fullest extent of the law.

Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey of the NYPD’s crime prevention division said even the parents of a Manhattan police captain, Michael Gandolfi, fell victim to a phone scam that’s becoming increasingly common. The scam involves telling senior citizens their child or other relative has been injured in an accident and money needs to be wired right away.

Last year, the NYPD said they received only three complaints about this scam. Through the first five months of 2019, they received hundreds.

The scammers told Gandolfi’s parents the captain “had been in an accident, that he hit a pregnant woman, killed her unborn child,” Corey said. The brash scammers even put “Gandolfi” on the phone with his parents, claiming he could barely speak due to the accident. The parents shelled out $29,000.

“If you think this is something you know about and couldn’t happen to you, it can happen,” Corey said.

These scams have only become more prevalent during his decades in elder care, Reingold said. The frontal cortex, the part of the brain closely associated with decision-making, breaks down as we age. Its development into humans’ 20s is often linked to poor decision-making among young people, but its deterioration in the twilight years can lead to poorly thought out actions by senior citizens and make them more susceptible to con artists.

The Weinberg Center has helped start more than a dozen elder shelters across the country in the last 15 years, but ultimately, Reingold believes stemming the tide of elder abuse will involve a complete cultural change.

One-in-10 individuals older than 65 is a victim of abuse, but there was another number Reingold wanted people to keep in mind: The number five.

“The Fifth Commandment of the Ten Commandments … it says honor your father and mother,” Reingold said. “Elder abuse is the opposite of that.”