Editorial: Elder abuse can be rampant on social media

Q: How are nursing home residents being victimized on social media? A: Advancements in technology simplify ordinary tasks, enhance quality of life and revolutionize the way we communicate and consume information. Consider social media. It provide...

Q:  How are nursing home residents being victimized on social media?

A:  Advancements in technology simplify ordinary tasks, enhance quality of life and revolutionize the way we communicate and consume information. Consider social media. It provides unfiltered channels of communication that allow instant connection among followers.

As an elected representative, I embrace these tools of technology to communicate directly with Iowans.  Social media offers an effective way for me to have dialogue with my constituents. Unfortunately, not everyone practices good digital citizenship. And I’m not talking about exercising freedom of speech and expressing dissent in the digital public square. I’m referring to growing incidents of elder abuse and exploitation via social media and cell phone technology.

Whereas social media empowers family members to keep in touch with loved ones and allow caregivers to record and expose wrongdoing that otherwise may have gone undetected, it also affords wrongdoers an outlet to do grievous harm to the most vulnerable citizens among us. Digital abuse on social media may include unauthorized posts of compromising or indecent photos and video. This may involve violations of privacy or criminal assault.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “physical and psychosocial consequences of elder abuse are numerous and varied.” Disturbing media reports of criminal sexual offenses against seniors residing in memory care facilities and elderly residents stripped of their privacy with videos of nude photos and videos distributed on social media underscore the depravity of the offenders and gravity of the situation. I’m working to identify solutions to keep our seniors safe. Making the decision to put a loved one in the care of others in a nursing home is an emotional and stressful situation for many families. Factoring in the risk of digital abuse on social media should not have to be one of the concerns.



Q: What can be done to protect the elderly from digital crimes and invasions of privacy?

A:  Earlier this year, I wrote the nation’s largest association of long term and post-care providers to make sure this issue was on its radar screen. With more than 12,000 facilities located in communities around the country, this group should have protocols and protections in place to ensure that its facilities provide the best, conscientious care to the one million individuals they serve.

Considering that these facilities accept billions of tax dollars through Medicaid and other government health care programs, the federal government has an obligation to see that these tax dollars are spent as intended and that these facilities are living up to federal health and safety standards for patient care. It’s encouraging that the private sector sees the need for increased awareness and preventive action to curb elderly digital abuse and exploitation. From rigorous employee background screenings to employee training and advocacy, policymakers, family members, elder advocates and leaders in the private sector need to work together to keep our nation’s elderly safe from harm.


The gifts of longevity and technology bring promise and challenges in the 21st century. As a federal policymaker, I make it a priority to keep pace with the needs of an aging society, including the fast-growing elderly demographic in the United States. Americans age 90 and older nearly tripled over the last 30 years, and census experts predict this population will quadruple in size in the coming decades. By 2050, the share of the nation’s older population (age 65 and older) expected to live beyond age 90 is on track to reach 10 percent of that age group. From around-the-clock medical attention to basic hygiene and nutrition services, long term care and assisted living facilities already employ tens of thousands of workers to provide care for frail, elderly and disabled Americans.

Having served as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I have conducted robust oversight of the nation’s nursing homes and worked to enact reforms to improve standards of care. Now as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m working to see to it that federal law enforcement is doing everything it can to prevent elder exploitation, from financial scams to social media abuse. From the Department of Justice to Medicaid Fraud Control Units in each of the 50 states, the federal government has a responsibility to hold wrongdoers to account and to protect seniors and the taxpaying public. The growth of the nation’s elderly population calls for collaboration and accountability among the private and public sectors to address housing, transportation, health care and financial security for people living decades beyond retirement.

Making sure older citizens are afforded dignity and treated with respect is a measure of a good and decent society. I’m working to get a better idea how pervasive elder exploitation is so that we can solve it. I’m glad the Northern District of Iowa was named as one of 10 Elder Justice Task Forces in this policy area. In the meantime, I have reached out to tech giants, including Snapchat and Facebook, to find out what they are doing to prevent their products from being misused for elder exploitation. I have also reached out to the Department of Justice and the Health and Human Services Inspector General to learn more about their work in this field and to urge them to take an active role in combating and deterring these heinous crimes against our elderly population. Raising awareness and building collaboration will help prevent exploitation of our nation’s elderly and hold offenders accountable for their crimes.

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