Our Golden Years are a time of life expected to be filled with spending leisure time with loved ones, the freedom to travel and enjoy life after countless years of hard work. What one doesn't expect during the Golden Years is to be abused, but the fact is each year hundreds of thousands senior citizens are victims of elder abuse.

Elder abuse is a serious topic that is not discussed as often as it should be. Our society is enraged by the occurrence of child abuse as well as domestic violence. However, less frequently do we hear about abuse inflicted on the elderly. It is a topic that makes people uncomfortable to talk about and to even think about.

Recently, legendary actor Mickey Rooney has been in the news testifying to the Senate Special Committee on Aging that he has been a victim of abuse for years at the hand of his stepson. During his testimony, 90-year-old Rooney said he never sought help because he was overwhelmed with fear and disbelief.

Seniors who are abused tend not to report the abuser because often times their abuser is a caregiver they rely on for daily assistance. Ironically, the individuals who they look to for care are actually the ones hurting them. In other instances the abuse goes unreported for fear of retaliation. According to the American Psychological Association more than 2 million seniors suffer from a variety of abuse. The rate is likely to be higher due to under reporting. Abusers are generally family members, friends or those who are considered to be trusted individuals. Recently, the rate of financial abuse has been on the rise, most likely due to the state of the current economy.

Elder abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, financial, neglect and even sexual. Many of the victims are frail or require assistance in various ways making them easier prey. Abuse affects men and women, various races and ethnic groups as well as all socioeconomic levels. The rate of elder abuse is alarming and very difficult for many people to take in. However, there are warning signs to look out for.

"¢ Physical abuse: Bruises, broken bones, burns, abrasions;

"¢ Emotional and Mental abuse: Unexplained withdrawal from usual activities, depressive moods and sudden change in alertness;

"¢ Financial abuse: Sudden changes in finances with little explanation;

"¢ Neglect: Presence of bed sores, extreme changes in hygiene, rapid weight loss (malnutrition);

"¢ Sexual: Bruises specifically around the genitals.

Aside from the more noticeable warning signs it is important for people to be keenly aware of what is happening in our senior's lives and to be alert. If something doesn't seem right then it is a good bet that it is not. For those who suspect abuse the appropriate course of action should be to notify a social worker or the local Adult Protective Services. Individuals should not intervene as it may make the situation more dangerous for the abused.

Elder abuse is a sad and unnecessary part of the aging process. Elder abuse needs to be openly discussed to help increase awareness and to educate society on red flags. While legislators have passed laws in every state against elder abuse its presence is still appalling and it is up to individuals in the community with seniors in their lives to be aware and help to protect this vulnerable population.

Rebecca Lippel is the manager of Family Centers' Friendly Connections senior outreach program. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. Family Centers is also affiliated with the Community Fund of Darien and the New Canaan Community Foundation. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.