MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s a growing problem. Experts say one out of every 10 Americans over the age of 60 has experienced some form of elder abuse.
Tennessee is cracking down on those who commit these crimes.
Starting Jan. 1, those convicted of elder abuse in Tennessee could face stiffer punishment.
The "Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2019" changes the classification of the most extreme forms of elder abuse, those that cause serious physical harm, from a class C to a class B felony.
A class B felony conviction could result in a prison sentence between eight to 30 years and a $25,000 fine, compared to three to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine under class C.
The law also expands who can seek a protection order for an abuse victim. It adds a conservator, agent or employee of the commission on aging and disability, attorney ad litem and the adults themselves as persons who may petition the court for protection.
"This change will help make sure our seniors, many of whom are dependent on the very person who's abusing them, are able to take care of the legal options available to them," said State Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown.
The new law is just the latest in a multi-year effort by Tennessee lawmakers to crack down on all forms of elder abuse, including financial exploitation and neglect.
Experts call elder abuse a silent epidemic.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found only one in 14 cases are ever reported.
"It's really shocking when you think about that there are more people out there that we just don't know about," said Kim Daugherty with the Aging Commission of the Mid-South.
In October, Daugherty said elder abuse is a growing concern in Shelby County.
A Tennessee Department of Human Services spokesperson said authorities investigated more than 1,300 cases of elder abuse in Shelby County last fiscal year.
"As our population ages in just the sheer number of people who are older and experiencing some disabling condition, it does become a more prevalent issue," said Daugherty.
Supporters of the new law hope it protects more of society's most vulnerable.
HOW TO REPORT ELDER ABUSE
You can report elder abuse in Tennessee by calling 1-888-APS-TENN (277-8366) or visiting https://ReportAdultAbuse.dhs.tn.gov
In Mississippi, you can call 844-437-6282.
In Arkansas, you can call 1-800-482-8049.
As always, in an emergency, call 911.