Star sheds light on el­der abuse

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - THE WEST - ALLEN ABEL

WASH­ING­TON — The fi­nal per­for­mance of a great lit­tle man be­gan with kisses blown from a wheel­chair. It was two hours be­fore cur­tain time, and the still-twin­kling star — one of the young kings of Hol­ly­wood when Hol­ly­wood it­self was young — was helped into his seat at the cen­tre of a long brown ta­ble and he hunched there, study­ing his script, re­hears­ing his lines.

Mickey Rooney, 90 years old.

“I wrote this my­self,” he told the few of us al­ready in the room. “I wrote this from the heart.”

This was in a stately con­fer­ence hall in an of­fice build­ing of the United States Se­nate. Out­side, dozens of peo­ple al­ready had lined up, ea­ger to wit­ness how the wit­ness would per­form be­fore the Spe­cial Com­mit­tee on Aging.

“Did you come here just to see him?” I asked the first per­son in line, who was a so­cial worker from New York City named Judy Weis­berg. At 73, Weis­berg was a gen­er­a­tion younger than the much-beloved ac­tor in the wheel­chair.

“I would have come any­way,” she replied. “This is­sue is very im­por­tant to me.”

The is­sue, as painful and per­va­sive as any on the Se­nate calendar, was the phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and fi­nan­cial abuse of older cit­i­zens. Sud­denly, and very sadly, the man-child on film 70 and more years ago, who had been the very em­blem of boy­ish, small-town, mid­dleAmer­i­can en­ergy, ex­u­ber­ance and pluck, had be­come fa­mous in his fi­nal days as a pi­tiable vic­tim whose step­son (by his eighth mar­riage) had pi­rated his credit cards, pur­loined his pass­port, and im­pris­oned him in his own house

Last week, a Cal­i­for­nia judge or­dered the al­leged of­fender to re­turn Rooney’s doc­u­ments and to keep away from his prop­erty. But the rul­ing came too late to re­cover hun­dreds of thou­sands of the dol­lars Rooney earned ro­manc­ing Judy Gar­land on the big screen — and mar­ry­ing Ava Gard­ner in real life — while mil­lions of bobby sox­ers swooned.

Ac­cord­ing to pa­pers filed in the Cal­i­for­nia case, the step­son “has blocked Mickey’s ac­cess to his mail and will not pro­vide Mickey with any in­for­ma­tion about his fi­nances, other than to tell him that Mickey is broke.”

“I just re­mem­ber him as a funny lit­tle kid goof­ing around with Judy Gar­land,” Weis­berg said. “I don’t un­der­stand how this could have hap­pened to him. Ob­vi­ously, he was a per­son of means.”

Weis­berg told me she had spent a dozen years as a case man­ager in a nurs­ing home, and that she had seen her share of fail­ing el­ders be­ing de­meaned and ex­ploited by the peo­ple who should have hon­oured them the most. Her own daugh­ter, an em­ployee of the Gen­eral Ac­count­ing Of­fice, had helped pre­pare the spe­cial com­mit­tee’s re­port.

“Are you afraid that she will do the same thing to you when you are older?” I asked her.

“We’re not that kind of fam­ily,” Weis­berg an­swered. “But ev­ery fam­ily says that.”

The com­mit­tee’s re­port es­ti­mated that one out of seven older Amer­i­cans is the ob­ject of some form of abuse. (No one knows how many other cases go un­re­ported out of de­bil­ity, de­men­tia or fear.) The com­mit­tee chair­man, Herb Kohl, 76, of Wis­con­sin, said that he soon would be in­tro­duc­ing a piece of tough leg­is­la­tion he la­belled the “End Abuse Later In Life Act” to mil­i­tate against this scourge. But first he in­tro­duced Mickey Rooney.

With­out the wheel­chair now, the movie star moved to his place. But in­stead of sitting down, he turned to face the au­di­ence, as he had a few thou­sand times be­fore. Hushed at first, ev­ery­one be­gan to ap­plaud. “You’d think I was im­por­tant,” Mickey Rooney said, wip­ing tears.

His tes­ti­mony, de­liv­ered with as much en­ergy and pas­sion as the child star could muster, had been handed out in ad­vance. As I fol­lowed along, I saw with de­light how the old ham ad libbed and al­tered his script — “my fans,” for ex­am­ple, be­came “peo­ple who liked my pic­tures.”

“Over the course of time, my daily life be­came un­bear­able,” he told us. “Be­cause it seemed to hap­pen out of nowhere. At first, it was some­thing small, some­thing I could con­trol. But then it be­came some­thing sin­is­ter that was com­pletely out of con­trol. I felt trapped, scared, used and frus­trated. But above all, I felt help­less.” Then he im­pro­vised this thought: “When a man feels help­less, it’s ter­ri­ble. And I was help­less.

“If el­der abuse hap­pened to me, Mickey Rooney, oh God, will­ingly or un­will­ingly, it can hap­pen to any­one. I’m just a man, do­ing a job, like you are. My­self, who I am, what I hope to be and what I was, was taken from me. And I’m ask­ing you to stop this NOW.”

I pon­dered this: a 90-year-old man still hop­ing.

A cou­ple of the sen­a­tors tried to ask ques­tions, but it was clear that this was more than the wit­ness could oblige. So they thanked him and the wti­ness got up and — again re­fus­ing the wheel­chair — he saluted and waved and, for per­haps the fi­nal time, ex­ited the pub­lic stage. Then he stopped. “It will hap­pen to you,” Mickey Rooney cried. “Some­body will take your money. It will hap­pen to you.”

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