Veteran Star Helps Shine Light On Elder Abuse

Actor Mickey Rooney entertained America for decades both on television and stage. But his latest appearance could be his most important. The 90-year-old actor recently testified before Congress that he had been abused by a family member. In Tell Me More's weekly parenting conversation, the moms take on the problem of elder abuse and how to deal with it. Weighing in on the discussion are geriatric care expert Marion Somers, Meryl Gordon, author of the book Mrs. Astor Regrets on New York socialite and elder abuse victim, Brooke Astor, and regular Moms contributor Leslie Morgan Steiner.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's Fat Tuesday and that means music, beads and king cake. Coming up, we'll talk to pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin about what makes king cake so divine.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms on our corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Now, normally in this conversation we focus on issues around caring for children. But we know that millions of Americans are caring for elderly relatives sometimes alongside caring for kids. And many people say those care-giving relationships can be as challenging, as fraught with emotion as anything they've ever encountered.

Now, previously on this program we've talked about the challenge of caring for seniors. But the issue is on our minds again after listening to the famed actor Mickey Rooney testifying before a Senate committee hearing last week. Rooney, now 90 years old, says his fame did not protect him from being abused by a family member who was supposed to be helping take care of him.

Mr. MICKEY ROONEY (Actor): My money was taken, was used, what finances I had. When I asked for information, I was told that I couldn't have any information of my own. I said, what the hell, what are you talking about? I was told it was none of my business. In my case, I was eventually and completely stripped of the ability to make even the most basic decisions. Over the course of time, my daily life became - my daily life became unbearable.

MARTIN: Now, Rooney did not name the person he said mistreated him in that venue, but previously he has sought court protection from his stepson and his stepson's wife, who he said drained his finances and deprived him of food and medicine.

We wanted to talk more about how common a scenario this is. So we've called upon Marion Somers. She's a geriatric care manager. She holds a doctorate and is known professionally as Dr. Marion. She's author of the book "Elder Care Made Easier." She's with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Also with us is author Meryl Gordon. She wrote the book "Mrs. Astor Regrets," which chronicled the life of New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, who in her later years found her fortune diminished by a relative who was convicted of defrauding her. And she joins us from our bureau in New York.

And here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio is our regular contributor, Leslie Morgan Steiner, who cared for her mother in her later years. Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

Dr. MARION SOMERS (Author, "Elder Care Made Easier"): Thank you.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Pleasure.

Ms. MERYL GORDON (Author, "Mrs. Astor Regrets"): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Dr. Marion, I want to start with you. How common are stories like the one that Mickey Rooney told?

Dr. SOMERS: It's prevalent. Very often the elder is put aside, they're surrounded by these people who are trying to keep them from complaining or registering the problems. And they are also embarrassed and fearful of their environment. So they very often do not complain and we don't know about the situation that they're encountering until they wind up in a hospital because they're bruised or even worse.

MARTIN: Meryl Gordon, you wrote a book about the life of Brooke Astor, this wealthy New York socialite and philanthropist. Her son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted in 2009 of stealing from his mother's fortune. So, tell us a little bit more about that scenario and I'm curious what your reaction was when you heard Mickey Rooney's testimony.

Ms. GORDON: Well, I was very saddened, obviously. I mean, the one upside - when you get someone very high profile coming forward in a situation like this, then there is usually an enormous reaction on the part of the public. The New York elder abuse prosecutors got a lot of new cases by people who felt that, my gosh, if it could happen to Mrs. Astor, it could happen to them. So, suddenly people were coming forward and talking about their situations.

I think what's heartbreaking about all this is that in case Mrs. Astor actually had done all the legal things you do, she had a will, she had given her son power of attorney, health care proxy. But sometimes these situations you trust the people closest to you and they turn out not to be trustworthy. In her case, she did not have a very good relationship with her daughter-in-law and she had set up her will so that Tony Marshall's wife, Sherley, would not have gotten any money.

So this was really, the prosecution said this was all motivated by Brooke Astor's son trying to get money from his mother's estate to give to his wife.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask you, though, for the - was Brooke Astor well cared for, physically?

Ms. GORDON: This has been a controversial question ever since this began, because Brooke Astor's grandson, Philip Marshall, in his initial lawsuit, said that his grandmother was being mistreated, and there were a series of allegations. She had aid and help, but the help did not get along. They were not well supervised. So a lot of things were going on in that house that were really not good. She wasn't physically harmed. I don't think that her medical care was in danger, but there were concerns.

MARTIN: So, Leslie, you took care of your mom at home for the last 10 weeks of her life while she was battling cancer. And I wanted to know your reaction to what you heard. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this is that I think that there are two sides, often, to the elder care story, that - so I want to hear from you.

Ms. STEINER: Well, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, terminal cancer, when she was 75. And although she remained lucid till the end, she deteriorated physically, incredibly rapidly. It was overwhelming. And I think just like a new mom who has a baby thinks that because they love the baby they're equipped to take care of them, I knew nothing about caring for a very physically ill person who I loved more than anybody on earth, and who was dying before my eyes. It is - there is another side of it, that it's really overwhelming to be the caretaker, and you and probably everybody else thinks that because you love them, you're going to be just fine. And it is, without a doubt, the most emotionally intense thing I've ever been through.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the issue of elder abuse, in light of recent testimony by 90-year-old actor Mickey Rooney, who told a Senate committee that family members deprived him of food and medicine and took control of his finances.

With us are geriatric care expert Marion Somers, Meryl Gordon, author of "Mrs. Astor Regrets," about this issue and the life of philanthropist Brooke Astor, and our regular contributor Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Marion, you know, we've talked about this, that, you know, on the one hand, people obviously don't want seniors to be mistreated. But also, their perception of their own circumstances might be very different, you know, or might not be accurate. Let's just say it, that they are people who might accuse people of stealing from them when, in fact, they've misplaced certain things. They might not have full command of their faculties and memory. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have seen this myself with my own, you know, mother, who will, you know, often accuse people of taking her wallet and so forth, when it's right there.

Dr. SOMERS: What you need to watch out for is when you're dealing with an elder, you know, their skin is very tender and all of those things, so there may be some bruising that happens because of the state that they are in right now in their old age. But if you see fingerprints, if you see - if there are broken bones, there are all kinds of things to be physically aware of. But also, if you're talking to a senior and somebody walks in and all of a sudden the senior, you know, huggles(ph) close to you or all of a sudden is dropping their voice or there's a fearful expression on their face, that very often will indicate that there's something not going right, that they're either afraid of this person legitimately, or there's a fearful anxiety there.

So the subtleties are there. It's up to us, who love these seniors, to be protective of them and, at the same time, stay very realistic as to what the perception is and what the reality is.

MARTIN: Leslie, you wanted to say something.

Ms. STEINER: I think it's important to recognize that there are experts in the field of caring for old people and very ill people. And in my case, I was really comforted by the fact that my mother was under the care of the hospice system. And the hospice nurses and social workers and the chaplain made it very clear from the beginning that they would be making unannounced visits whenever they wanted to, and that my mother was in charge, and that she would be making decisions. And they would directly ask her if she was okay, did she need more pain medication, etc., and that they would do that sometimes when I was there, but sometimes when nobody was there. They knew exactly how ill she was, and they knew what to expect better than anybody else.

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask? Meryl, I'd love for you to take this first. People, I think, sometimes think that the scenario that we're describing only exists where there's a lot of money - and so there's something for people to fight over - or where there's none, and caregivers feel resentful and stressed.

So Meryl, I wanted to ask: How did this scenario involving Anthony Marshall come to light, and how did it get to a point of this ugliness, when there certainly seems to have been plenty of resources to go around to assure Mrs. Astor's care?

Ms. GORDON: You're total right. There was more than enough money. Her estate is estimated being more than $200 million. I think she was 105 when she died, and her son was in his 80s. And as Leslie has pointed out, the responsibility of taking care of an elderly family member can be overwhelming. If it's overwhelming in your 40s, 50s and 60s, imagine how you'd feel if you're in your 80s.

I think also what's complicated is that old family resentments can turn up at these moments. If you're mad at your parents for something that happened 40 or 50 years ago when you were a child, you may resent them. It may come to the surface later. And I think there is a level in which people may feel almost entitled to. If there's money involved, they feel a bit entitled. They're doing whatever they're doing, and they feel they should be compensated for it.

I'm not minimizing, as Leslie, again, has pointed out, how some of these emotional complications certainly, you know, make all these issues more difficult.

MARTIN: Leslie, let's hear from you, and then Dr. Marion, we'll give you the last word.

Leslie, what do you think people can learn from your experience?

Ms. STEINER: Well, I think it's important for me to say that it was clear to me how much power I had over my mother during the 10 weeks that she was living with us, and I took the power very seriously. And fortunately, she was a very sweet and placid patient, even though she and I had had a pretty complicated mother-daughter relationship for our whole life. And I made sure that my mom was in control, as much as she possibly could have been.

And I also have to say that the whole experience made me think so much about my own future, because I would never want to be in my mother's shoes, to be so vulnerable, even on a beloved family member. I think it is a really hard thing to reckon with, that we're all going to face this at some point.

MARTIN: Dr. Marion, a final thought.

Dr. SOMERS: If there are unhealthy family structures in place, any problem that have been festering over the years is going to come to the surface, and the older person is usually the brunt of the anger, the frustration that has not been healed over maybe your lifetime. So if there is a problem, get the outside professional help that you might need, so that at the end of someone's life, you're not dealing with the unresolved, festering issues.

When you think there's abuse or you're absolutely sure of abuse, notify somebody what you're concern is and what you are observing or what you think is happening, whether you call the police or you call an ombudsman in a institutional setting, just make sure that the authorities or somebody who has some power knows that there is a questionable or a potential questionable something going on.

MARTIN: Marion Somers has worked in geriatric care and holds a doctorate in this field. She's worked in this field for more than 30 years. She's author of the book "Elder Care Made Easier." And in that book, she has some very concrete steps for trying to protect seniors from abuse. She was with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Meryl Gordon is the author of the book "Mrs. Astor Regrets," which chronicled the life of a New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, who in her older years, became a victim of elder abuse. And she joined us from our bureau in New York.

And here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, our regular Moms contributor Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's the author most recently of the memoir "Crazy Love."

Ladies, I thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. GORDON: Thank you.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

Dr. SOMERS: My pleasure.

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