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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Astor case shines light on issue of elder care

Remember Brooke Astor?

She was the sort of person who used to come to mind when we said "rich," before the 1990s market let the term "nouveau riche" lose its pejorative meaning.

Socialite philanthropist Brooke Astor couldn't give away money fast enough. By the time she closed the Astor Foundation nearly 10 years ago, her largesse sprinkled $200 million over charities, thanks in great part to her third husband.

Vincent Astor died in 1959, the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, who - once upon a pre-Warren Buffet-Donald Trump time - was the single richest man in America.

You're forgiven if it all seems hazy; the lady is 104 years old, after all.

(Although, I must say, in a New York Times photo of her 100th birthday party -sky-blue dress, white gloves, pearl choker and earrings, wheat-colored hair perfectly waved - she looked fabulous.)

As last week came to a close, she was hospitalized after a 53-year-old grandson went to court claiming his 82-year-old father, who handles his mother's $45 million fortune, refused to provide Mrs. Astor with adequate care.

The tale of her maltreatment remains in the unproved lawsuit stage that highlights this family squabble. Still, it's much the type of situation that was under scrutiny Thursday at the University of Toledo's law college auditorium.

There, some 500 law enforcement officials met for a session titled "New Approaches in the Identification, Investigation, and Effective Prosecution of Crimes Against the Elderly."

Despite the bold-faced names and bank accounts, the alleged circumstances of Mrs. Astor's straits aren't so different from any other tale of an old person's abuse or neglect. The Washington-based National Center on Elder Abuse, in a 2004 survey reporting the latest available nationwide statistics, says almost 90 percent of abuse allegations take place in domestic settings.

And usually (about two-thirds of the time), abuse victims are women, while most often their abusers are their own adult kids (33 percent of the time) or other family members (21 percent).

While there's been a lot of recent attention to the institutional shortcomings of how we care for old people, it's much harder to detect familial maltreatment - even by others in the same family or by the proverbial unknowing neighbors.

In this case, Mrs. Astor's oblivious neighbor is legendary fashion designer Vera Wang, who told the New York Daily News she simply assumed the aging socialite was too frail to leave her home.

While Mrs. Astor lives in a Park Avenue apartment complete with a staff of servants, the New York Daily News reported she lived in "virtual squalor."

Her son reportedly wouldn't even authorize attendants to spend the money for nonslip socks, which they wanted to guard Mrs. Astor from falling. The woman known worldwide for impeccable grooming is now said to sleep in torn nightgowns on a couch that reeks of urine.

A lot of old people fear they'll outlive their assets.

But the Astor case underscores the notion that losing control over one's life can be even scarier.



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