The beloved film icon, first seen by America in short pants, delivered his most significant performance at 90. Mickey Rooney passionately told Congress what it's like to be old and vulnerable.

Despite his fame, despite his wealth, he said, he was a victim of a growing phenomenon not adequately understood, much less addressed, in America: elder abuse.

Don't recognize the term? You will.

We may honor seniors with words, but the treatment they receive from family members and caregivers is often another story. The older person who is isolated from family or social networks is a potential victim. They can be physically abused and intimidated, have medications withheld or their money stolen. Some are even sexually abused.

As America's population ages, our ignorance of elder abuse is yet another indication that we're unprepared for the demographic changes ahead.

Rooney appeared before a Senate committee the same day the Government Accountability Office released a new report on elder abuse. Rooney told of the fear and shame he felt for years as his stepson took control of his finances and other aspects of daily life. He has charged in court that his stepson verbally abused him and withheld medicine and food. Rooney told the committee he had been "stripped of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life."

It would be all too easy to dismiss this as a family squabble. But the GAO report painted an ugly corresponding picture. Much elder abuse is believed to be done by family members, and an estimated 14 percent of older adults who aren't living in institutions like nursing homes have been abused in some way, according to a study cited in the GAO report.

Couple that with expert's belief that about 84 percent of abuse is never reported. That's staggering when the nation's demographics are considered. People 65 and over were 13 percent of the population in 2008. They will be nearly 20 percent by 2030.

Yet as a social concern, abuse of older people is where awareness of domestic violence was decades ago. Used to be, men couldn't be charged with raping their wives in many states. Police weren't trained to respond to violence between couples as they are now. Hotlines didn't exist; cases routinely weren't prosecuted.

It's time for a new attitude toward elder abuse. We're simply not equipped to identify and intervene this sort of abuse. Clearly, it's a complex issue. Aside from the usual family dynamics at play, dementia, depression and other issues associated with aging make it difficult to make judgments in individual cases.

Yet, the elderly are at risk. And they are less likely to seek help than younger people, experts believe, as they're often more isolated. Children who might be abused attend school, where aware teachers or counselors might spot the problem. States vary in who falls under mandatory reporting laws in regards to seniors.

It's no surprise that those who are physically disabled are more likely to fall victim to abuse.

The GAO report charged the Secretary of Health and Human Services to do more, to implement reporting standards so the scope of the problem can be measured, its regional nuances and trends understood. Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, is calling for an Office of Elder Justice within the Department of Justice.

The safety of older Americans can't be ignored as the nation sets its priorities and makes decisions about scant federal funding.

Rooney said he felt "trapped, scared, used and helpless." "For years I suffered in silence," he said. "I couldn't muster the courage, and you do need courage to seek help." Yes, and someone has to be listening.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may e-mail her at