Today, SevenPonds speaks with Helen Karr, an attorney who advocates for the elderly community. A former beauty salon supervisor, Karr decided at the age of 65 to go back to school to become an attorney after hearing about and witnessing for the mistreatment of her elderly customers. Now retired at 83, Helen Karr has spent years actively fighting the ill-treatment of the elderly community. She worked as an Elder Abuse Specialist at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, where she offered advice to seniors on protecting themselves against fraud and scams. She also spearheaded the effort to designate the month of May as Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Awareness Month in California.
Kristen: Before we start, I would like to commend you for taking action toward an issue that is widely ignored but direly needed.
Helen: Thank you so much. I feel that in today’s hectic world, elders are often forgotten about or taken advantage of because of their inability to communicate via technology or in general. Many families place them in homes and then abandon them. Others are robbed by their children. It’s really very sad. But I want people to know that there are options to prevent and fight these circumstances.
Kristen: What is an Elder Abuse Specialist?
Elder abuse specialist was the title the District Attorney’s unit gave me. So I wouldn’t say it’s an official occupation. Basically, I am someone who raises awareness of elder abuse. If someone files a report with the police regarding a crime against an elder, the police investigate first. Then they hand the case over to the District Attorney’s office for further investigation. This is where I come in. I’ve been trying, however, to reach the elderly community before these calls happen.
Kristen: Can you remember a specific person’s story that finalized your decision to become an elder abuse specialist?
Helen: It wasn’t just one account. I became interested when I was in charge of a beauty salon. Many of the older women couldn’t spend money on their hair more than once a year because their adult children had confiscated their money. Or sometimes the women had lent their children money that they hadn’t seen since. I had no idea about financial elder abuse up until that point. I only knew about physical abuse. People think elder abuse only happens in nursing homes. But 96 percent of abused elders are living outside of a home.
One specific example I remember was when I worked in a department store salon, and an elderly lady came in with her caregiver. The woman was in this tarnished dress. I mean, it was filthy. She was also very ill-kept. When the caregiver stepped out, one of the hairdressers deliberately got the woman’s dress dirty just so she could wash it. We felt terrible sending her back home with the caregiver because it was obvious she was not treating the woman with respect.
Kristen: How did you get started in your field of work?
Helen: Working in department store salons exposed me to the mistreatment surrounding the elderly. One woman who was a grandmother was telling me a story about how she was afraid of her granddaughter, and by that point, I had had enough. Over 25 years, I supervised 22 salons with over 200 employees, so I was aware of the laws surrounding cosmetology and employees, but not elders. I wondered what I could do to help. I didn’t want to be a social worker, but I loved the law from using it in my business.
Eventually, I left the beauty business to go to law school so I could help elderly women write contracts to collect the money their children took from them. I was naive in the beginning, but I wanted to help people. The laws at the time only dealt with physical elderly abuse, not financial. Only in 1998 did California include theft and fraud and financial crimes along with abuse and neglect in their elder abuse laws. The laws cover anyone 65 years of age or older or disabled persons who need the help of a caregiver. Perpetrators go to prison for at least five and up to seven years for these crimes.
Kristen: Do your cases usually deal specifically with the financial aspects of elder abuse?
Helen: Yes, but this is because I was mostly interested just in the financial cases when I first started out. But if there is one form of abuse, there is usually another. I am now familiar with other types of elder abuse because my job required knowledge of California’s strict definitions and specifications regarding elder abuse.
The exact definition of elder abuse is “the painful or harmful mistreatment of others.” But California law identifies a number of different types of elder abuse. These include criminal negligence, physical abuse, theft, sexual abuse, robbery, burglary, forgery, embezzlement and identity theft. The forms of the abuse can be physical, abandonment, abduction (out of state), isolation, verbal abuse and mental suffering, neglect and/or financial abuse.
Kristen: What is the most effective method, in your experience, to spread awareness about elder abuse?
Helen: Well, I want to thank you first of all, because you’re helping me get the word out to all age groups through this interview. But really, I have worked tirelessly to make my presence as an elder abuse specialist known.
Anytime someone wanted a speaker at a function or health fair with large crowds, I said yes. I go to senior housing and explain what elder abuse is. I created and wrote a monthly senior column in my local newspaper where I would explain what elder abuse is and ways in which people can recognize the signs. From there I developed Seniors and the Law, a magazine that has a wide audience in California. I was also on TV and radio talk shows. I helped train judges and police officers to spot elder abuse and had free reign in the District Attorney’s office to do so. So really, I have done everything and anything I could to spread awareness about elder abuse of all kinds.
Please join us next week for Part Two of our interview with Helen Karr.