Marie-Therese Connolly will be awarded the MacArthur genius grant for her work to prevent elder abuse. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

As she crafted her closing argument in a case against a Seattle area man who was charged with allowing his elderly mother to literally rot to death, prosecutor Page Ulrey struggled to find the right words. So she called Marie-Therese Connolly, a former Department of Justice lawyer who knew just what to say:

The role of caregiver comes with a legal and moral obligation. And even though the son had said his 84-year-old mother, Ruby Wise, had wanted to die at home with dignity, not in a nursing home, there was nothing dignified about the way she spent her final days — emaciated at 72 pounds, covered in sores so deep that bone was visible through rotted tissue, in a bed stained with urine, feces and blood. Last year, Chris Wise was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

On Tuesday, Connolly, who for years has been trying to place elder abuse in the national spotlight, is being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the $500,000, “no strings attached,” so-called “genius” grant given annually to a couple dozen artists, thinkers, social advocates and historians.

“I was shocked that the problem is so invisible,” she said in an interview Monday. “There is so much opportunity for change, and I can’t think of another issue that affects so many people and where less is being done.”

In issuing the award, the foundation said Connolly, a 54-year-old District resident and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, has “devoted her career to laying bare the many forms of elder abuse: physical and psychological, as well as financial exploitation and wrongful deprivation of rights.”

She has done so behind the scenes and in public: writing, lecturing and testifying before Congress. Through her work — described as passionate and tireless by those who know her — she has become more than an advocate, they said, something more akin to a conscience for a society that has not afforded elderly victims the same legal protections that victims of child abuse and domestic violence have had for years.

“I see her as one of the major leading figures in the development of a broader social movement to address elder abuse,” said Kathy Greenlee, the assistant secretary for aging at the Department of Health and Human Services. “People who work in the field of elder abuse feel like we’re two or three decades behind the work we did in this country to address domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.”

Five million older citizens are said to be victimized annually, but as many as 96 percent of these cases go unreported. Advocates fear that as the baby boom generation ages and stretches resources, the problem will grow more severe and widespread.

Perhaps no one has done more to combat it than Connolly. A lawyer, she had worked at the Department of Justice prosecuting civil fraud cases. In the late 1990s, a Government Accountability Office investigation found many abuses at California nursing homes, which prompted the Clinton administration to create what became known as the Elder Justice and Nursing Home Initiative. Connolly was put in charge.

“I commend the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing the critical importance of the work Marie-Therese helped launch several years ago at the Justice Department, and the need for our continued vigilance in combating elder abuse, fraud and neglect,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement Monday.

Connolly was the architect of the Elder Justice Act, which was passed by Congress last year, the first piece of federal legislation to address the issue. In 2007, she left the Justice Department to “start writing and talking about these issues in ways that wouldn’t have been appropriate if I was a federal employee,” she said.

She founded a nonprofit organization called Life Long Justice, dedicated to helping fight elder abuse, and is writing a book about the subject.

“It should be a part of the national conversation like health care, justice and jobs,” Connolly said.“I’m just hoping that the foundation’s recognition of what’s really a growing epidemic is the beginning and will be a game-changer in the whole field.”

In testimony this year before a special Senate committee on aging, she cited the case of Ruby Wise and noted that neighbors closed their windows and that Wise’s son had worn earplugs to mute his mother’s cries.

“We as a nation also have been wearing earplugs,” she said. “It’s time that we remove them.”