Witness Abuse: What Would You Do?

What will people do when they see a caregiver berating an elderly person?

ByABC News
November 29, 2006, 1:41 PM

Dec. 4, 2006 — -- What do you do when faced with a difficult decision?

Would you react differently if you knew someone was watching?

What if your dinner out was ruined by kids running wild and out of control while an oblivious parent ignored the chaos?

Would you say something, or stew in silence?

Would you approach an obnoxious person talking loudly on his cell phone?

Here is a scene no one would expect to encounter in a suburban park on a hot summer afternoon.

As strollers, joggers, and people on bicycles pass by, it appears that a frail, elderly man in a wheelchair is verbally and physically abused by his uniformed caregiver, a young man in his 20s.

Will anyone stop and help? Would you?

The caregiver berates the man mercilessly.

"Are you going to read the paper, or are you going to sit there and babble like an idiot," he asks.

The elderly man says, "I want to go home," to which the caregiver responds, "Well, you're not going home! How's that?!"

Despite the apparent abuse, one person after another who encountered the troubling scene kept right on going. Finally, a man, riding bikes with his two young children, stops less than 10 feet from the surly caregiver.

"Don't hit him," he says with a look that means business. "If I hear any more, I'm calling the police. I'll tell you that right now."

Moments later, about 50 yards down the bike path, the man borrows a cell phone from a young mom pushing a stroller. He calls 911 to report the abuse.

But the man is in no real danger.

The elderly man isn't in any danger. Both he and his caregiver are actors, hired by "Primetime," for a special hidden-camera experiment.

The 911 dispatchers were also informed of our experiment, but we wanted to see how people would react when they encountered a case of elder abuse. Would they keep walking by? Would they call 911? Or would they step up and confront the abuser?

Over the course of two days, "Primetime" observed 100 people walk past our abusive caregiver and the elderly man. Only 25 intervened in some way.

"My first instinct was to ride by and not do anything," said Ron Nagle, the dad who called 911. "But I have two kids, and I didn't think it was a good example to the kids to just do nothing."

Unfortunately, Nagle is the exception.

According to statistics released by the National Center on Elder Abuse, only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.

Over the two days that "Primetime" spent in the park, those who didn't get involved offered up myriad reasons:

"I just wasn't sure if it was my place," one woman said.

Another woman said, "I wish I could have done something, but I felt helpless. He was intimidating."

An older man riding by on a bicycle was reluctant to approach because the caregiver seemed angry. "The guy's a lot bigger and a lot younger than me, and he was pretty hot-tempered," he said.

Reports of elder abuse in the United States are growing significantly, up almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the National Center for Elder Abuse.

The same organization estimates that anywhere between 1 million and 2 million Americans older than the age of 65 "have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care."

Of those people who intervened in our "Primetime" hidden-camera experiment, many had personal knowledge or understanding of elder abuse or were health-care professionals experienced in working with the elderly.

When Joe Insigna witnessed the caregiver abusing the elderly man, he called 911.

"My brother was in a nursing home," he said. "He was paralyzed. And a few of the nurses were pretty abusive to him. So I know what it's like to be helpless and not be able to defend yourself."

Lorraine Jacobson, walking her dog in the park, persuaded her son, Scott, a lawyer, to stop and talk to the caregiver.

"I've worked with Alzheimer's patients, developmentally disabled patients, but this is not the way to deal with a patient," she said.

Women were just as likely as men to get involved and question the caregiver's abusive treatment of his client.

Adriana Peel, a special education teacher, ran right up to the elderly man to question him about his care.

"Is this the way this man speaks to you all the time?" she asked.

The man in the wheelchair nodded, but the caregiver kept abusing the old man.

"You're like a little girl, that's what you are," the actor posing as the abusive caregiver said.

Peel was furious.

"Listen, I'm in the health field, and the way you're talking to him is abuse," she said.

"Abuse?" said the caregiver. "I think you've been watching too much 'Oprah.'"

With that, the woman pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.

Patty Leitch, walking in the park with her toddler, Rocky, approached the two men and engaged them in conversation. The caregiver tried to elicit some sympathy, but Leitch didn't have much.

"Imagine a child who never grows up," the caregiver said, sharing his frustration.

"That's your job, dude," Leitch responded. "You chose it. Get out of the profession if you don't like it, man."