Jackson County stepped out Monday to commemorate World Elder Abuse Day with a Walk to End Elder Abuse sponsored by the Jackson County Department on Aging.

The walk has come and gone, but the entirety of June is dedicated to elder abuse awareness, so let’s pause to take stock of the very sad but very necessary need to such commemorations.

Elder abuse is more prevalent that we’d like to believe, and is on the rise.

Part of that can be written off to demographics, as 10,000 people turn 65 in the U.S. every single day, a trend that’s expected to continue for the next 20 years.

As those numbers have grown, so have the numbers of elders facing abuse. The numbers are daunting; an estimated 1 in 10 older Americans, some 5 million people, face exploitation, neglect or abuse every year.

Perhaps the most chilling statistic is that these numbers are estimates. For every case of abuse or neglect reported, it’s estimated anywhere between 14 cases to as many as two dozen cases may go unreported.

The numbers are similar for elder financial abuse and fraud. Those cases are estimated to cost older Americans anywhere from around $3 billion to $36.5 billion annually. Fraud and abuse are also likely underreported, although financial crimes are self-reported at higher rates than physical or emotional abuse.

Elder abuse is an equal opportunity phenomena, with both abusers and the abused being male and female. All too often – in 60 percent of the cases – the perpetrator of the abuse or neglect is a family member. Two-thirds of those are adult children or spouses.

Older adults particularly vulnerable to abuse are those facing social isolation or suffering impairments from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Warning signs of physical abuse, mistreatment or neglect include bruises, poor hygiene or an unusual loss of weight. Emotional abuse signs include frequent arguments between the older adult and caregivers, unusual depression and withdrawal from normal activities.

It’s a problem, a tragedy, that is growing and will likely continue to grow.

So what to do?

A key first step is simply to raise awareness of an issue that isn’t on the radar of many people preoccupied with other worries. That’s where events like this week’s walk come in. Department on Aging Executive Director Eddie Wells also issued a proclamation recognizing Monday as the Fourth Annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, stating “Older adults deserve to be treated with respect and dignity to enable them to serve as leaders, mentors, volunteers and vital participating members of our communities,” adding that “The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) and the Jackson County Department on Aging recognize the importance of taking action to raise awareness, prevent and address elder abuse,’’ and that we need to recognize “it is up to all of us to ensure that proper social structures exist so people can retain community and societal connections, reducing the likelihood of abuse; and that preventing abuse of older adults through maintaining and improving social supports like senior centers, human services and transportation will allow everyone to continue to live as independently as possible and contribute to the life and vibrancy of our communities.”

Being an elder has never been easy, but in some ways it’s more difficult than ever. Unlike some traditional societies where elders are revered, we live in one that constantly looks for the next new thing. In addition, the size of families has been shrinking, reducing the number of family caregivers available and putting increasing demands on them. And sadly, there are an awful lot of grandparents who, instead of being able to turn to their families for care, are instead raising their grandchildren (approximately 100,000 in North Carolina alone).

All the numbers add up to a quietly growing crisis in our own backyard. It’s a problem.

And as the saying goes, the first step to fixing a problem is to recognize you have one. We hope this week’s walk serves, no pun intended, as a major step forward on that front.

If you would like more information about this topic, contact Eddie Wells at 586-5494 or email at eddiewells@jacksonnc.org