Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of their annual "Genius Grant" awards. Among the winners is Marie-Therese Connolly, an attorney and activist who has been awarded $500,000 for her work combating elder abuse in America. It is heartening to see that an organization with the resources and prestige of the MacArthur Foundation has taken note of Connolly's important work.
The silent epidemic of elder abuse is an issue that has long motivated the work of an organization near and dear to my heart, the Center for a Just Society. With so much injustice and suffering in this world, there are many worthy issues that receive the time, attention, and financial resources of philanthropic organizations. Unfortunately, the plight of the elderly often goes overlooked. This problem is exacerbated by a culture that has changed radically over the past several decades, becoming more and more obsessed with youth, more and more self-centered, more and more disconnected from intergenerational family bonds and obligations.
According to prevailing attitudes about aging in America, there is very little to relish about growing older. It is to be delayed and avoided. Old age is not beautiful, it's not glamorous, it's not dignified. There is a sense that the elderly have had their day in the sun, but are no longer capable of making a valuable contribution to society. They should, therefore, retreat to the shadows and wait to die. This is especially true when they suffer from conditions like dementia, which robs them of their reason and steals their memories along with their ability to interact with their environment.
Many families, lacking the ability to provide for the needs of their loved ones, place their elderly relatives in facilities that advertise themselves as caring, safe, nurturing environments, but are in reality profit-driven businesses that care little for the well-being of their wards. Their emphasis is on profits, not people, and they place revenue ahead of their residents. Avoidable pressure ulcers, falls, fractures, infections, malnutrition, dehydration – all are common problems among the institutionalized elderly.
For those that do elect to care for their aging and infirm relatives at home, the motivation is not always benevolent. Connolly discussed one such instance in a recent interview with NPR: