While the older people in our communities faced enormous physical risks during COVID-19, the pandemic also increased another vulnerability.

COVID-19 has been a boon to scammers. They call, text, or email promises of at-home virus test kits, virus prevention products, enhanced insurance, or grocery delivery. They impersonate government agencies, warning Social Security payments are being cut because of the pandemic or promising to fast track stimulus checks from the Treasury. A few solicit money for bogus charities. They’ll say a relative has lost a job and needs help, or that a neighbor has fallen ill and faces mounting hospital bills. Or offer love and romance.

While some of these grifters are strangers, many older people are abused by caregivers, family members, or friends: Sign your Social Security check over to me, and I won’t put you in a nursing home where you’ll catch the virus and die. Tell me where you hide your money, or I’ll stop bringing you food. Do what I want — or else.

An older person’s dignity is violated when abuse occurs. Elder abuse has been called the silent crime of the 21st century, affecting at least five million people each year, be they physically or emotionally harmed, hurt by intentional neglect, or robbed of money or property.

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I am a supervisor at the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly’s (CARIE) Providing Advocacy for Victimized Elderly (PAVE). I’ve seen firsthand the harm caused and the incredible strength elders exhibit in response.

At PAVE, we help victims file for compensation, get educated on their rights, connect to benefits and services, and seek restitution. In cases involving criminal prosecution, we can accompany victims to court and prepare them to tell their stories.

In the last year, PAVE has supported a woman in her 90s who was robbed of cash by a man who would enter her home by breaking doors or windows and stay for extended periods; a 72-year-old professional who lost thousands of dollars to a scam; and a woman in her 60s whose son had assaulted her multiple times.

It takes a lot to ask for help, and we keep that in mind when we offer assistance.

Many victims feel hopeless, stressed, depressed, and ashamed. Some are intimidated by the thought of dealing with police or going to court. They may fear retribution.

PAVE recognizes the responsibility to treat our clients with dignity and celebrates their strength and resilience. And if we can’t provide the needed service, we’ll connect them to organizations that can.

What happened to the woman in her 90s who was robbed by someone breaking into her home? We asked the local police district’s victim assistance officer to make a wellness check because we didn’t have a phone number to contact. The officer found the woman living with no running water and no electricity.

We worked with the officer so the woman could have her broken windows repaired and recover some of the woman’s lost money through the state’s program designed for crime victims. The woman was referred for additional services, including the state’s utility assistance program.

What about the 72-year-old professional who was scammed — by someone impersonating a Social Security agent claiming she owed money? We assisted her in completing the victim compensation program application for stolen cash and continue to check in with the state to see if it has been processed.

The woman with the abusive son? Knowing that he had issues with drug addiction and mental health, she wanted to get him help rather than be sent to jail. Our advocate encouraged her to share these concerns with the District Attorney’s Office to see if he would be eligible for a diversion program. She called the prosecutor, and the case went through drug court. She did obtain a protection from abuse order. She was able to make decisions for herself, leaving her feeling empowered.

The lesson is to make sure elder abuse is no longer a silent crime — and to preserve the dignity of elders and recognize the strength it takes to say, “I need help.”

Mariel Lorenz is the PAVE supervisor.