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Cary A. Presant, M.D. Headshot

Mickey Rooney, Teen Idol Turned Elder Hero: What We Can Learn From Him

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What will Mickey Rooney's legacy be for us? Nearly everyone will remember him for his many roles as Andy Hardy, which made the actor the number 1 box office star in the 1930s and 1940s. But he had 2 other important roles, instructive for us all. He showed us how to continue to be productive even as we become older. And then he showed us how vulnerable anyone can be to elder abuse, and how to handle this tragedy.

His death on April 6 once again propelled Mickey Rooney into the headlines. Born in 1920 as Joe Yule, Jr., he died at age 93. For over 80 years, Mickey performed at first onstage in vaudeville with his parents, and then in films starting in 1926. Despite a slump in the 1960s and 1970s, he resumed his career and made his last film The Muppets in 2011 at the age of 91! This is a sign to all of us to look for activities that can be rewarding, emotionally fulfilling, and keep us active despite advancing chronological age. What Rooney could do into his 90s should inspire us to continue to set and reach life objectives with the support of our family and friends.

But what about this other elder-hero role, what about elder abuse? Mickey Rooney died almost broke. Rooney claimed that a family member had subjected him to economic elder abuse and left him penniless, and a judge granted him a restraining order against his stepson. In 2011 Mickey testified before congress about elder abuse and his personal tribulations with family members. In 2013, his lawsuit was settled for $2.8 million, but it is unclear if Rooney ever received any money from the settlement.

The courage that Mickey Rooney displayed in going public with his victimization from elder abuse is a message for us all. It should cause us all to think about elderly relatives and friends and be observant whether their quality of life and health may be worse related possibly to abuse.

Elder abuse can take many forms. These include economic exploitation (as Rooney described his problem), physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect and/or emotional abuse. Predisposing conditions can be dementia, confusion, physical disabilities, or confinement in a long-term care facility or nursing home. In these situations, the elderly must rely on decisions being made at least in part by others, usually family members but also by hired caregivers. And that is when abuse may occur.

Personally, I have had one family member who was wheelchair bound whose caregiver subjected her to severe financial abuse, despite the hired caregiver being emotionally very supportive. Another family member suffered physical neglect, and that occurred in a nursing home. And we have had a friend whose mother also suffered economic abuse.

This suggests that elder abuse may be very common. According to the American Psychological Association, over 4 million individuals have been abused. Worse, they claim that only 1 in 23 instances of abuse are detected. So this happens often, and we all have responsibilities to be aware of the problem, and to take action if abuse is suspected. Symptoms of abuse which we might observe can include bruises, self neglect, reduced mental capacity, becoming overly suspicious, bedsores, missing personal effects, or financial setbacks.

So here are Dr. Cary's suggestions about elder abuse:

• Be attentive to the situation of elderly family or friends, and know who is caring for them. Identify changes in these older individuals, and discuss them with the elderly person or responsible family members. Get more information on elder care and elder abuse.
• Increase the social interactions for the elderly to reduce emotional stress and isolation.
• If you are caring for an elderly individual who is at risk of abuse, discuss this with the doctor so she or he can be attentive as well, and suggest management solutions.
• Obtain help from social workers in caring for the elderly individual.
• Be aware of best practices in caring for the elderly. See the chapters on Caring for the Elderly and Caring for the Infirmed in my book Surviving American Medicine.
• Reduce stress in caregivers. If caregivers become burnt out, there is a greater risk of unintentional abuse. Find time off (take a respite) by identifying other resources for temporary care.
• If there is interpersonal conflict or stress among family members, caregivers, or with an elderly individual, ask your doctor for referral for psychological or family counseling.
• If you suspect elder abuse, consult these resources: the National Center for Elder Abuse, Adult Protective Services, Area Agencies on Aging, the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, And the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800 799 7233).
• Find help in caring for the elderly by using an Eldercare Locator.

Mickey Rooney is a hero for the elderly in fighting against elder abuse and taking a public stand on behalf of other older individuals. Let his fight become our cause as well. We will all be elders sometime.