Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Story About Elder Abuse (Advocating for the Vulnerable #1)

Dear friends,

I am both a people watcher and a bargain hunter, so a trip to the neighborhood Aldi grocery store is quite an experience for me. It's a small store and it's almost like whoever walks in about the same time as you is your comrade for the next half hour that it takes to traverse the four aisles filling your cart. I've had fascinating conversations at Aldi with strangers or with old friends I haven't seen in a while. Sometimes the clerks have to remind us to move along because the store's about to close.

But today.

Image from here.
Image from here.
They walked in just after me, a man who looked to be in his forties and an older woman. Certainly the years had not been kind to her. Neither had this man: her dignity was under constant assault by his glares, his gestures, his bellowing voice that resonated throughout the entire store, his incessant cutting words. He treated her like she was a disobedient child and he the harried parent, even though no child should ever be subjected to that kind of belittling and humiliation. He acted like an unruly and whiny child himself, throwing his public tantrum. Aisle 1, aisle 2, aisle 3, aisle 4, checkout, and even the bagging area, where he sat cross-legged with his entire body on the counter, barking into his phone that she'd better get out of that bathroom right quick. She came. The barrage continued. I loaded my cart just 15 feet away, and when he glanced in my direction, I looked him right in the eyes. My heart stood still, but my tongue did not. I could not be silent any longer. I took a deep breath, spoke firmly, directly: "No one deserves to be treated that way.  Ever. You are being obnoxious." My words were an understatement, but he looked startled at my audacity. Then he smirked and stuck his tongue out at me, hefted his grocery bag strap onto his shoulder and stomped out. She followed.

Dear God in heaven. What choice did she have?  

I stood and shook. My daughter handed me a brownie to calm my nerves. A clerk asked if I was OK. A fellow customer came over and thanked me for what I said. She confided: "She is his mother, you know." Did this customer know them personally or did she just overhear that?  I wonder. I wonder if the dear lady lives with her son and puts up with this humiliation every day. And I wonder what he does to her when no one is looking, whether those age spots on her skin were really bruises instead. I hope he doesn't vent against her any anger about what I said to him. I hope he listened somewhere in his heart, though I'm not banking on it. I hope he can find a healthy way to channel his frustration when he is overwhelmed about caring for his mother. I hope she heard, that she sensed in my words a glimmer of hope that she is worth something. To somebody. To God. That she is not bad, but his behavior is. She deserves better.

I'd like to open an on-going conversation starting with this incident. It's not just about verbal abuse (and yes, it is REAL ABUSE) of the elderly, but about advocating for the safety and dignity of all the precious vulnerable people right here in our communities and beyond.

I want to talk about some dark issues. Human trafficking. Crisis pregnancies. Domestic violence. Teen bullying, rage, and suicide. Mistreatment of migrant workers. Mental illness. Children who are missing one or both parents due to desertion, death or jail. The homeless. Anyone who is being exploited.  

I want to talk about what we can do.

But all that is for another day, for many other days. My heart needs to mull on that some more. I need to gather my wits, gather my resources, say my prayers.

Here is the first step until then:  BE AWARE. Be mindful. Educate yourself outside your comfort zone so when the time comes, you will know what to do to help the situation and not make it worse.

And here is a second step for some of you. If you can share with me (really all of us) what you already know, whether it is an experience, a resource, an organization, please do. This is a conversation, not a lecture.

Since we started this conversation with a story about elder abuse, here are two links with information on what it is and what can be done:
And, an article by my friend Karen Campbell at that gave me impetus to speak up in the grocery store: The Real Man.

Thanks for joining me. Please leave a comment.

Virginia Knowles

P.S. I have already written about some of these issues on my other blogs:


  1. Georgia Ana LarsonAugust 30, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    Thank you, Virginia! Thank you for speaking up for a person without a voice and for sharing the story of it. I'm one of those audacious public advocate types, too, and these are the things I do differently, whatever the age of the victimand regardless of the sex of the bully: (1) speak directly to the victim (if older) to reassure them they're not alone and to determine their state before addressing the bully, (2) take phone pictures or video of victim, bully, setting, folks nearby, (3) if the bully leaves with the victim and I feel there is danger -- yup, I just trust my gut on this -- I follow them out of the setting and take a picture of the license plate of the car. I have a child abuse report number on speed dial -- and have used it three times this past year, twice in WalMart and once in Publix I'm going to place an elder abuse report number alongside it. I haven't observed this directly yet, but as the demographics of our society change -- in terms of age, but also social stressors like continuing unemployment and growing poverty -- there may be a greater need. Kindness matters; thank you for showing this courageous kindness and sharing this story with us. And one last thing: any person who will treat another this way in public has already harmed them physically in private -- something I've learned in long years of social work. Sad, but true. The marks of submission you saw in that old soul were evidence of the physical scars she carries.

    1. Agreed, agreed, agreed. Everything you say is correct! Even though she was cowed to submission, she knows what her son is doing is wrong. Always address the victim!

  2. Every state has an adult protective services hotline you can call, just like child protective services. Speaking up is good, but definitely not enough! Put the number in your cell phone and next time, call it. Why has no one done this for her? I am a nursing assistant in a long term care facility and we are under strict regulations... if an employee or family member treats a resident even close to what you witnessed, we are to call the hotline. She can't defend herself. His father probably treated her the same way.