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Deaths of Older Adults In Pennsylvania Rose, As Pandemic Unfolded

Previous few years have seen a sharp rise in the number of older adult deaths in Pennsylvania following an abuse or neglect allegation.

As COVID-19 swept the country, the number of complaints increased and agencies found it difficult to maintain caseworkers on staff.

The staggering increase shown in state data from 120 deaths reported in 2017 to almost 1,400 in 2022, a more than tenfold increase may have had several contributing factors, and the state and county-level agencies that field and investigate complaints gave varying answers explaining why.

Mostly, Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging and county-level agency officials speculated that it had to do with a growing population of people 65 and older, an increase in complaints and the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older adults.

One county said errors in its data entry procedure, now corrected, led to undercounting in the initial years. Another pointed to cases staying open longer.

Some county agencies wouldn’t answer questions about it at all.

The increase came as agencies in Pennsylvania and nationwide struggled to keep caseworkers on staff through the pandemic and manage caseloads.

The Department of Aging said it has no data to suggest that a lack of caseworkers contributed to the increase in deaths, and suggested that the data could be misleading since the deaths may have had nothing to do with the original abuse or neglect complaint.

“The data does not make any correlation between the provision of protective services and how the older adult died,” the agency said.

The department doesn’t track causes of death, and individual county-level agencies aren’t required to provide that information to the state. When caseworkers enter data on a case, they are given a choice of reasons for why a case was closed, including death.

Former agency employees and county officials said that if anything has changed recently, it is probably because of the state’s efforts to train caseworkers, which have improved the way data on cases was input and maintained.

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