No elderly person should be subjected to injury, violence, neglect, abuse, exploitation or abandonment by others. Since 1987 Elderly Protection Services Act served the Pennsylvania system to protect the health, safety, and well-being of older people who are at unavoidable risk of these serious offenses.
Since I became Acting Minister for Aging in 2019, improving our security services has been a top priority. No one, especially lawmakers, has in any way indicated that we should not do more to serve and protect our elders, especially those who are most vulnerable. In fact, the opposite is true.
However, after more than a decade of calls from the Department of Aging, stakeholders and courts about the urgent need to update and strengthen OAPSA, the General Assembly has taken no action.
We finally need to see legislative measures to adequately address changes in our direct care workforce, facilities that serve the elderly, and the growth of financial exploitation as forms of elder abuse.
In particular, the law needs to be urgently amended to definitively identify those who cannot be allowed to work as caregivers for the elderly. In 2015, the Commonwealth Court declared the current legislative prohibitions on this issue unconstitutional.
The court intended to amend OAPSA to make the rights of all parties involved in the employment process clearer, especially if someone is denied the opportunity to work as a tutor.
Caregivers provide services to older people in vulnerable situations, such as getting dressed and bathing, and have access to important and valuable information that allows them to identify themselves. As part of the proposed changes to OAPSA, the department strongly supports increased data validation for all employees, both new and current, who work with older people in long-term care settings.
The department is also in favor of expanding the list of mandatory reports of abuse and facilities whose employees are required to report abuse. Additions to the list of mandatory reporters will include care options that did not exist in 1987, when the law was first enacted – such as home health, hospice and life support.
This extension will provide a more robust network for reporting elder abuse and increase the protection of older people.
Since OAPSA became our statutory guide, nearly 35 years ago, to protect Pennsylvania seniors, the volume, type, and scale of abuse have increased dramatically, as noted in the department Annual report of the service for the protection of the elderly for 2020-21. Reports of suspected abuse of the elderly have increased by 63% over the past five years.
There has also been a marked increase in financial exploitation as a form of elder abuse. The findings of a study of financial exploitation of older people in Pennsylvania, published in September 2020 by our department, led to the conclusion that changes to OAPSA will help raise awareness of how financial exploitation is carried out, encourage financial institutions to volunteer to report voluntarily suppliers and district. The Aging Agency is an opportunity to share information and records relating to cases of exploitation.
A great deal of work is being done in partnership with the Department, local district agencies on aging and stakeholders to combat elder abuse, but all our work can be much more effective with the full force of the updated Protection Services Act.
However, despite lawmakers ’vocal concerns about protecting the elderly, the General Assembly does not seem to be able to achieve this.
Pennsylvania is home to more than 3 million adults over the age of 60, and is projected to increase to 4 million in 8 years, representing nearly 30% of our state’s population. Elderly Pennsylvania residents deserve protection under a law that addresses issues that affect them today and that strengthens the department’s ability to effectively provide that protection.
As the department responsible for the advocacy and protection of our state’s seniors, the Department of Aging calls on the General Assembly to amend OAPSA as a top priority in the remaining months of the 2021-22 legislative session.
The House of Representatives Committee on Aging and Elderly Care is due to take action on the 1681 House of Hennessy bill, and similar legislation needs to be upheld in the Senate so that these updates can finally be implemented.
For all the seniors we serve and care for in Pennsylvania, let’s do it now.
Robert Torres is Pennsylvania’s secretary for aging.