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Bob Blancato

Bob Blancato, the national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition and president of Matz Blancato and Associates, discusses the importance of social connections to combat elder abuse and isolation during Older Americans Month.

Each May, Older Americans Month is a time to recognize and celebrate older Americans’ contributions while reaffirming our commitment to enhancing and protecting the lives of older adults. This year’s Older Americans Month theme, “Powered by Connection” highlights meaningful relationships and their ability to advance older adults’ health and well-being. Social connections enrich lives of older adults and also serve as an indispensable lifeline, equipping other older adults to age in place. These vital connections promote well-being and can serve as a deterrent against elder abuse, which affects one out of 10 Americans annually.

As individuals age, they may encounter various challenges that can increase their risk of social isolation and loneliness, particularly those who live alone or experience the loss of family and friends. Research shows that the average victims of elder abuse are women ages 75 to 80 who live alone. Older adults who live with chronic conditions or disabilities, reside in rural or remote areas, and have limited access to transportation or limited resources are even more vulnerable to social isolation, making them more susceptible to mistreatment and exploitation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these vulnerabilities further, as many older adults were isolated with limited socialization. Consequentially, perpetrators seized this opportunity to exploit this isolation, leading to a surge in instances of elder abuse. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that online scammers targeted older adults more frequently than other age groups, with losses of up to $1 billion in 2020. 

This month serves as a call to action to improve the lives of older adults by addressing elder abuse while championing tools that are combatting it. As reports of elder abuse continue to rise, initiatives like AmeriCorps Seniors serve as a beacon of hope, offering a pathway to support, empower, and safeguard older adults.

AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer Jewel exemplifies the profound impact social connections and dedicated volunteerism can have on the lives of older adults, particularly in combating isolation and preventing elder abuse. Jewel, through her role in the Senior Companion Program, has been a lifeline for at-risk older adults, visiting them in their homes for 15 hours each week to provide support and companionship. Her commitment to these individuals ensures that they can maintain their independence and continue living safely in their own homes.

One winter, Jewel's routine visits to one of her companions turned into a life-saving intervention. When the older adult didn't answer the door, she instinctively knew something was wrong. Her quick thinking and immediate action, along with the help of a facility security guard, led to the discovery of her companion in severe distress. Thanks to Jewel's timely intervention, the senior received the necessary medical attention for a potentially fatal heart attack and eventually recovered. This incident highlights not only the importance of the connections that AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers like Jewel establish with older adults but also the critical role they play in ensuring their safety and health.

"I believe that you can never do too much for someone or care too much,” Jewel remarked, reflecting on her experience. Her words resonate with the mission of AmeriCorps Seniors. programs, which aim to empower and safeguard older adults through community engagement, support networks, and elder justice advocacy.

By providing volunteer opportunities for adults ages 55 and up, these programs enable older Americans to actively engage in their community, establish support networks with their peers, and position themselves as elder justice advocates.

How AmeriCorps Seniors Combats Elder Abuse

In pursuit of elder justice, it’s essential to recognize older adults can serve as agents of change. Beyond the invaluable work AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers provide, they are trained to identify signs of elder abuse and educate their peers on protecting themselves from becoming victims. Being stationed across the community allows volunteers to report suspicions of elder mistreatment. 

Volunteers participate in joint educational training sessions on tips to avoid scams and financial exploitation. AmeriCorps Seniors and the Department of Justice’s elder abuse agencies lead these sessions to provide information on working with elder justice professionals. 

AmeriCorps Seniors provides three programsFoster Grandparent, RSVP, and Senior Companion that invest in and build connections at nearly 30,000 locations across the country. These programs represent a concerted effort to address the root causes of elder abuse by fostering relationships that increase socialization. 

The Foster Grandparent program promotes intergenerational relationships. Volunteers can tutor students, mentor teenagers and young parents, or provide care for children. Older adults combat social isolation through these meaningful interactions while providing support and guidance. AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers reported decreased feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation after one year of service

Similarly, the RSVP program connects older adults with volunteer opportunities tailored to their interests from local to national organizations. AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers in the RSVP program play a critical role in building connections and also educating and protecting older adults from financial exploitation and abuse. Volunteers can also teach courses created by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that focus on scams targeting older adults, identity theft, and financial literacy tools to prevent financial exploitation. Volunteers can also serve as long-term care ombudsmen, which investigate potential mistreatment in nursing homes and other care facilities while advocating for nursing home residents’ voices to be heard in cases of abuse, neglect or mistreatment. 

  • The Iowa Insurance Division trains volunteers in Central Iowa to give presentations and provide resources on an array of elder fraud issues, ranging from tech scams to sweetheart scams. 
  • Volunteers serve with Texas Senior Medicare Patrol to teach Medicare beneficiaries how to report health care fraud and abuse.

The Senior Companion program places volunteers in the homes and communities of older adults who struggle with daily tasks. This partnership establishes a trusted relationship and provides essential social support among volunteers and the companions they work with. Volunteers can alleviate loneliness and isolation, while being trained to protect and identify instances of abuse. 

  • AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers in the Senior Companion program of South Central Kansas have been trained to detect and report cases of elder abuse and neglect. Volunteers were able to identify 12 clients who participated in the companion program who were at risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. 

AmeriCorps Seniors Continues to Make a Difference in Communities

For decades, AmeriCorps Seniors has remained steadfast in its mission to promote positive aging while empowering older adults to thrive in their communities. These programs have succeeded in addressing new and existing challenges such as combatting isolation and preventing elder abuse, ensuring older adults can age with dignity. In an age where social isolation and loneliness are epidemic, this connection, this caring and noticing, can make a world of difference. AmeriCorps Seniors is a great example of a federal program that represents an invaluable proposition. It provides value and meaning to program participants and makes a difference in the lives of those served by the program. AmeriCorps Seniors programs continue to demonstrate their indispensable role in investing in older adults while shaping a brighter future for generations to come. 

Bob Blancato

Bob Blancato is the national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, a national advocacy voice supporting elder justice in America, and president of Matz Blancato and Associates. He is a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and the 2023 winner of the Generations United Jack Ossofsky Award for Lifetime Achievement in Support of Children, Youth and Older Adults.