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The National Center on Elder Abuse: In the Beginning…

By Georgia J. Anetzberger, PhD, ACSW and Carol A. Miller, MSN, RN-BC

March 10, 2022

If you go to the website for the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), the welcoming statement covers its purpose and origins in two sentences. Of course, both are more nuanced than that, although there is much offered online to attest to purpose and hardly anything on origins. This blog attempts to fill that void. It is the story of the NCEA before it was in existence, when the idea for having such an entity arose, as told by some of us directly involved.

Georgia: The article that headlined Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer on November 24, 1978 was titled “Love gone awry: Some elderly persons suffer abuse at the hand of their own kin”. It described results from research undertaken by local social workers Elizabeth “Betty” Lau (MetroHealth’s Chronic Illness Center) and Jordan Kosberg (Case Western Reserve University). The first of its kind worldwide, it discovered that nearly ten percent of the Center’s clients had indicators of abuse. This finding helped to propel those involved in the local planning and advocacy group for older adults (Council on Older Persons or COOP) to seek solutions, initially by drafting what became legislation for Ohio’s adult protective services law, a task which involved a committee of ten chaired by Betty and staffed by me.

Carol: I was a member of COOP at the time. Recently I had left my position as a gerontological nurse practitioner on Cleveland’s Near West Side to become special assistant for Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, who had been elected to the US Congress representing that district. She was widely known as a strong advocate for older adults. Shortly after I began working for her we both saw the article. Around that same time, Congresswoman Oakar was contacted by a social worker who told her that a son had repeatedly brought his mother to the emergency room with indicators of abuse, but he was afraid to make any report because he had no immunity. Congresswoman Oakar was appalled when she realized that there were no national protections for abused or neglected older adults, and she committed herself to changing this through legislation. 

Georgia: I remember you calling me, asking for COOP’s committee to review the legislation that Congresswoman Oakar had drafted but as yet had not introduced into Congress. Modeled after child abuse legislation, the proposed bill had two major purposes: provide support for programs to address adult abuse and establish a National Center on Adult Abuse. At this juncture the legislation was broadly focused on adult abuse rather than more narrowly on elder abuse. The committee met with you just outside COOP meeting space and was supportive of the legislative provisions (although ideally we would have wished for more), especially as complements to the work we were undertaking.

Carol: Motivated largely by information from social workers (including Betty), health care professionals, and older adults who testified at congressional hearings “behind a screen,” Congresswoman Oakar introduced the “Prevention, Identification, and Treatment of Adult Abuse Act of 1980.” Although the original bill did not move out of committees, it successfully brought public and governmental attention to the problem of elder abuse. During each of the next six sessions, Congresswoman Oakar was persistent in introducing a similar bill. Finally, in 1991 she incorporated the bill creating the National Center on Elder Abuse into Older American Act (OAA) reauthorization legislation, which passed both chambers of Congress.

Georgia: Everyone on COOP was thrilled to read the September 26, 1992 article in The Plain Dealer announcing “Congress OKs Oakar plan to help elderly”. As she stated for the press, “Hope for an estimated 1.5 million American senior citizens who are abused annually is now just the stroke of a pen away”.

Carol: Shortly thereafter the legislation was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. I will never forget the day it happened. As an integral part of OAA, ongoing support for NCEA was ensured.

The “Elder Abuse Prevention, Identification and Treatment Act” cited a half dozen functions for NCEA, from compiling and disseminating an annual summary of recently conducted elder abuse research to developing and maintaining an information clearinghouse on all elder abuse programs. However, those familiar with NCEA today, and regular users of its resources, recognize that it is so much more. And for the few of us on hand when NCEA was simply an “idea”, it has become a “dream come true”.

Note: The authors extend their sincere appreciation to former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar for her graciousness in being interviewed as preparation for writing this blog.

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