A Sandy man accused of leaving his 84-year-old helpless mother-in-law alone for hours at a time has been charged with abuse of an elderly person.

Bruce Nelson, 50, is charged with a third-degree felony under the state Aging Adult Services Act, which was toughened last year. The charge carries a potential punishment of up to five years in prison.Sandy police contend the woman was unable to take care of her basic needs, including eating, drinking and going to the bathroom.

Ron Stromberg, director of Utah Adult Protective Services, said there have been 2,429 referrals of adults who allegedly were abused, neglected or exploited this year in Utah, up from 1,081 in 1987.

"We've more than doubled in eight years and it's increased 20 percent just in the last year," said Stromberg. Reported incidents of elderly abuse are "growing quickly and we expect it to continue to grow because of the graying of our state and the country."

Modern medicine allows the disabled to live longer, which can mean they suffer longer in bad situations, Stromberg said. Caregivers seem to be most prone to abuse the elderly or disabled, he said.

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"It's really related to the stress. The caregivers try to keep their family members at home," Strom-berg said. "What they don't understand is how difficult it is to care for them. They take care of their own kids, grandchildren and we see three, four generations in one home."

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