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Gone without a case: Suspicious elder deaths rarely investigated

A.C. Thompson

A.C. Thompson

At the end of last year, ProPublica turned a spotlight on seniors who perish from abuse, neglect, or other forms of mistreatment – deaths that are almost never investigated by coroners or medical examiners.  

Who knew that doctors can fill out death certificates in most states without ever seeing an elderly patient’s body and determining what actually happened to the person?

Experts told ProPublica that the failure to examine suspicious senior deaths reflects denial as well as prejudice.

"We're where child abuse was 30 years ago," said Dr. Kathryn Locatell, a geriatrician who specializes in diagnosing elder abuse. "I think it's ageism -- I think it boils down to that one word. We don't value old people. We don't want to think about ourselves getting old."

Here, ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson describes how reporting for this story evolved and how it fits into the news organization’s broader investigation of coroners and medical examiners, a joint project with PBS “Frontline” and NPR.

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