1. Archive

"Prisoners in their own homes'

The pendant seemed such a small thing for the thief to steal. But to the elderly woman, it was like losing a piece of her heart.

"The pendant was from her daughter," Toni Downes, a victim's advocate, said Wednesday at a National Conference on Victimization of the Elderly. "And the woman had outlived her daughter. Losing the pendant brought the whole thing back to her. The emotional impact was severe."

Although people older than 65 are victims of crime less often than other age groups, they usually suffer greater economic, physical and mental effects, said law enforcement and aging services officials.

The conference is the first the U.S. Department of Justice has sponsored on crime against elderly people. It is intended to highlight the problem and suggest solutions. The two-day meeting ends today at the Saddlebrook Golf and Tennis Resort in eastern Pasco County.

Older people often fear crime more than do other groups and may think they are more likely to become victims than younger people. In general, officials said, that is not the case although some warn that statistics may be off because of unreported crimes.

But the fear is well-founded for several reasons: Americans older than 65 are a little more likely than others to face criminals with a gun, or face more than one thief at a time. And, in a national statistic that reflects some recent crimes in the Tampa Bay area, the elderly are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crime in or near their homes.

Also, older people are almost twice as likely as others to be seriously injured and require hospitalization when they are victimized, according to national statistics for 1987-90 that were released this month.

"The very people who built our streets are afraid to walk them," said Anthony Schembri, the police commissioner of Rye, N.Y., a suburb north of New York City.

"They call them "crib jobs' because it's like taking candy from a baby," he said, referring to crimes in which the elderly are more often victims: purse snatching and push-in robberies, in which a thief simply follows an old person home and pushes his way inside.

"People have become prisoners in their own homes," afraid to go out, especially at night, said U.S. Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger. He called for tougher sentencing standards for all states, harsher treatment of career criminals and more jail space.

Social service workers also warned that seemingly small crimes can begin a process that speeds the mental and physical deterioration of an aged person.

For example, losing even a small amount of money to a con artist might cause the person, or their family, to begin wondering about their judgment.

"They are their harshest critics because they become concerned about how well they can manage to be independent," said Downes, the victim's advocate from White Plains, N.Y.

Many police departments, including those in the Tampa Bay area, have victim's advocates who help the elderly deal with such effects. And many states like Florida have increased penalties for exploitation of elderly people.

Conference members said now is the time to increase efforts: There were about 31-million people older than 65 in 1990. In 20 years, as the baby boomers age, the figure is expected to be about 40-million _ and rising about 12-million each decade after that.