Genius Grant Will Help Advocate Fight Elder Abuse

After a career devoted to combating the largely hidden but widespread problem of elder abuse, Marie Therese Connolly has been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for a so-called 'genius' grant. She tells Morning Edition's David Greene that the recognition will have a huge impact on her work.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This month, the lawyer Marie Therese Connolly received a phone call. It was the MacArthur Foundation with a little news. She had won what's often dubbed a genius grant. The foundation was awarding her half a million dollars with no strings attached. Marie Therese had been nominated anonymously for her work advocating for the elderly and our colleague David Greene spoke with her.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Marie Therese, good morning.

MARIE THERESE CONNOLLY: Good morning.

GREENE: And I understand people call you MT, friends and most people?

THERESE CONNOLLY: That's right.

GREENE: OK. Well, we'll go that way too. You speak out against something called elder abuse. Tell us what that is.

THERESE CONNOLLY: Elder abuse can be physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. It can be neglect. It can happen at homes, in communities, in facilities. So last year there was research indicating that about one in ten people over 60 are abused, neglected, or exploited, and that's folks who are healthier. Among people who have dementia, the resent research is that about 47 percent are abused or neglected.

GREENE: And might not be reporting their struggles.

THERESE CONNOLLY: That's exactly right. Of every one case that comes to light, another 24 never see the light of day and no one ever knows. So the numbers are very stark.

GREENE: I have this image of the people you are talking about abused by a neighbor or family member and might not remember details of what happened, might not even know who to call. I mean, talk about a story or two that sort of sticks in your mind that illustrates what you're really trying to tackle here.

THERESE CONNOLLY: Well, one that comes to mind is the story of Ruby Wise. Last year her son Chris was charged with her murder. And what he had done, essentially, is let her rot to death. He was her sole caregiver, spent his days, among other things, playing Internet poker and living off her pension while she literally was imprisoned, by her dementia, in her bed and developed huge pressure sores, many of which were bone-deep, exposing her bones.

And she cried out for help loudly for weeks before she died, and?

GREENE: To him, to her son?

THERESE CONNOLLY: Well, to him, and the neighbors heard. They closed their windows, they didn't respond, and her son put in earplugs.

GREENE: That's such a painful story. I'm wondering what this grant is going to help you to do.

THERESE CONNOLLY: Well, I think the most important aspect of this grant is an interview like this, actually. It clearly is going to have a big impact on my life, because I've been flying without a salary safety net for the last few years and my family has been very indulgent about letting me rack up debt.

But more importantly, it brings attention to the issue, and hopefully will serve as a game changer for the field.

GREENE: As much as this call from the foundation was a surprise to you, I understand it was also a real coincidence. One of the other winners of a genius grant was a poet, Kay Ryan. And apparently, as I understand it, you're really a big fan of hers.

THERESE CONNOLLY: I'm a big fan of hers, and you know, the MacArthur Foundation requires you to keep this information secret, and so I actually got the call on September 7th and was carrying this huge secret around inside of me. And so I've had Kay Ryan's book of poems on my bedside table for the last two weeks and when I would wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes I would read.

GREENE: And during those two weeks, you didn't know that she had also won.

THERESE CONNOLLY: Not the slightest clue, no.

GREENE: Wow. Do you have a favorite poem of hers?

THERESE CONNOLLY: Well, I have one that I think is particularly applicable to the issue that we've been talking about. It's called "Losses."

(Reading) Most losses add something, a new socket or silence, a gap in a personal archipelago of islands. We have that difference to visit itself, a going-on of sorts. But there are other losses so far beyond report that they leave holes in holes only like the ends of the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead, but not.

Poetry has the capacity to express what I blathered on about at great length in a much more condensed and succinct form.

GREENE: That's MT Connolly who is among this year's winners of MacArthur Foundation genius grants.

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