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Elder abuse takes focus at CLC listening session

Sen. Karin Housley (right), associate director at Minnesota Elder Justice Center Amanda Vickstrom and Sen. Carrie Ruud are a part of a panel hosting a listening session on elder care Wednesday at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
A panel of experts host a listening session on elder care Wednesday at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
A panel of experts host a listening session on elder care Wednesday at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

Central Lakes College hosted a session Wednesday regarding aging and elder care in central Minnesota—a subject that's been gaining traction as more of the population moves into their twilight years.

The session was headlined by state Sens. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point.

"We want to do the best job we can for our senior citizens. Senate District 10 includes Aitkin County, and Aitkin County has the highest median age of any county in the state of Minnesota," Ruud said. "So that we know that we have this great tsunami coming and I'm part of it."

Housley, the chair of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, said the session represented a gathering of various state officials, experts and advocates that wouldn't have have happened just a few years ago. Now that aging—plus all the issues associated with elder care—are becoming a focal point, she said it was encouraging to see this level of cooperation.

"Just to have all these people at the same table and those two all in the same room, I can tell you a year ago not everyone was working together or talking together. I think families' voices weren't being heard," Housley said. "Now everybody is in the same place wanting the same thing, which we all want for our loved ones."

Sen. Justin Eichhorn, R-Grand Rapids, joined Housley and Ruud as officials of the state. Alongside them, Amanda Vickstrom, associate director at Minnesota Elder Justice Center; Kari Thurlow, senior vice president for advocacy at LeadingAge Minnesota; Toby Pearson, vice president of Care Providers of Minnesota; Kris Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates and Jean Peters, vice president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, each contributed to the discussion—a commentary ranging from expert legal advice, to poignant and sometimes painful personal experiences.

While the event was billed as a listening session on aging, most of the topics touched upon could be broken down into elder care and specifically elder abuse. The senators listened while attendees from the area explored issues of caregiver pay and the importance of clearly designating which family members have authority over their parents' care.

Beyond that, the majority of the session pertained to elderly abuse in care facilities—abuse that takes form in neglect, invasion of privacy, isolative behavior, financial exploitation or outright physical harm, among others. Participants questioned how such behavior could be curtailed and punished. Likewise, in terms of protecting older loved ones, the discussion explored how much was in the hands of families or whether that was in the domain of lawmakers like Housley and Ruud.

A member of the audience expounded on a situation in which her mother was placed in a group home and suspected abuse was taking place. When the family took steps to monitor the situation with a hidden camera, the care facility retaliated by cutting off her mother's internet connection and demanding the camera be removed. The audience member added subsequent care negligence may have contributed to the loss of her mother's legs.

Vickstrom said this case is a cut-and-dry example of criminal elder abuse and indicative of the kind of pushback some caregivers are willing to undertake to protect their positions of power. While often regarded as a "last resort," cameras are a vital means to protect the rights of people who otherwise lack the wherewithal. Minnesota law dictates the hidden surveillance is legal, so long as at least one person present is aware of said surveillance—although, Vickstrom added, it can be difficult to enforce that right.

"There are facilities, right now ... in the state of Minnesota that aren't allowing cameras, they're removing them from the rooms," Vickstrom said, who noted often it requires lawsuits to enforce laws on the matter, in the absence of tighter legal guidelines from the state Legislature. "There are issues to work through, but a lot of that work has been done. I think it's critical for victims and residents to have that right. As a preventative measure, we want people to be able to use that."

Beyond catching elder abuse, Peters said there is also a problem of punishment, citing a personal example when her mother experienced constant neglect and outright abuse within three days of being placed in a care facility. Although she was able to provide substantive proof of abuse, agencies fined the facility zero dollars for the abuse—owners of ice houses would be fined $175 for not removing their rigs from the lake by Feb. 13, she added as a point of comparison.

Her colleague, Sundberg, said there will be little incentive to make systematic improvements to elder care in Minnesota and abroad.

"Right now, there are seldom any penalties. And, if there is, the fine is so insignificant to a lot of these places," Sundberg said. "What we need to do is take a look at the fine structure and make them meaningful. They will straighten out when there are meaningful fines imposed on them. It needs to be regulated, you need that oversight and very little of that is happening right now."

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