Skip to main content

Mickey Rooney tells Senate panel he was a victim of elder abuse

By Tom Cohen, CNN
Click to play
Rooney: I suffered from elder abuse
  • NEW: Rooney says he "suffered silently" for years
  • 90-year-old entertainment legend gives emotional testimony
  • The committee is examining the chronic problem of elder abuse
  • Witnesses tell heartbreaking stories of abuse of senior citizens

Washington (CNN) -- Grimacing with emotion, entertainment legend Mickey Rooney implored a Senate committee on Wednesday to stop what experts call chronic emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse of elderly Americans by family members and other caregivers.

The 90-year-old Rooney told the Senate Special Committee on Aging that he was abused by a family member who took control of his life, and described feeling "scared, disappointed, yes, and angry."

"You can't believe that it's happening to you," Rooney said. "You feel overwhelmed."

Rooney has filed a restraining order against his stepson and stepdaughter, claiming both emotional and financial abuse.

The committee's hearing brought attention to what experts call chronic elder abuse in America. Rooney said Congress should pass a law to make it a specific crime.

"I'm asking you to stop this elderly abuse. I mean to stop it. Now. Not tomorrow, not next month, but now," he shouted from the witness table. Pass legislation and send it to be signed into law by President Barack Obama, he urged, so that the nation can say "it's a crime and we will not allow it in the United States of America."

Following the hearing, committee Chairman Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, introduced legislation that would create an Office of Elder Justice within the Department of Justice to help coordinate law enforcement response to elder abuse.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, more than 14% of noninstitutionalized older adults experienced some form of elder abuse in 2009. The report cautions that number may be lower than the reality because many instances of elder abuse are underreported.

"For years I suffered silently. I didn't want to tell anybody. I couldn't muster the courage and you have to have courage," Rooney said Wednesday. "I needed help and I knew I needed it. Even when I tried to speak up, I was told to shut up and be quiet."

The GAO report found that many Adult Protective Service programs at the state level have growing case loads and dwindling resources. The elder population of the United States is expected to grow by 60% over the next 25 years.

Other witnesses detailed the depth of the problem.

"I tell the physicians I train that if they've seen 15 or 20 older people in their practices ... then they have probably met an elder abuse victim, whether they realize it or not," said Dr. Mark Lachs, director of geriatrics at the New York Presbyterian Health System. Based on a new study of elder abuse in New York state, "it would appear that for every elder abuse victim that makes it into an official service or reporting system, another 23 to 24 go undetected," Lachs said.

Marie-Therese Connolly, director of the group Life Long Justice, told of a man charged by prosecutors in Seattle with murdering his mother. "His crime? Letting her rot to death with eight huge pressure sores, several to the bone, while he played internet poker and lived off her pension," Connolly said. "His excuse? She didn't want to go to a nursing home or a doctor; he was just respecting her wishes."

According to Connolly, the woman was "imprisoned in her bed by immobility, dementia and isolation."

"She moaned and cried out for help continuously in the weeks before her death," Connolly said. "Neighbors closed their windows and her son put in earplugs to muffle her cries. No one called Adult Protective Services or 911. It's hard to believe the response would have been the same had the cries come from a child, a younger woman or a dog."

The witnesses noted that victims of elder abuse put a greater strain on support services by requiring more medical care, housing assistance and other help.

Rooney summed up the challenge when he spoke of the personal difficulty that victims of elder abuse face.

"You're afraid, but you're also thinking about your other family members," he said, noting concern about potential criticism from "your family, your friends, people who know them."

"They might not want to accept the dysfunction," Rooney said, adding that "one should love their families as I do. I love my family."

The diminutive Rooney has been a film star for decades, starting with his role in Andy Hardy films in the 1930s.

CNN's Sally Holland contributed to this story.