Recognize the Signs of Elder Abuse
Older people today are more visible, more active, and more independent than ever before. They are living longer and in better health. But as the population of older Americans grows, so does the hidden problem of elder abuse.
Every year an estimated 2.1 million older adults are victims of physical, psychological, or other forms of abuse and neglect. But for every case of elder abuse and neglect that is reported to authorities, experts estimate that there may be as many as five cases that have not been reported.
Like other forms of abuse, elder abuse is a complex problem, and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it or assume it pertains only to people in nursing homes. But statistics show that most incidents of elder abuse don't happen in institutional settings but rather at home while in the care of family members or paid caregivers. And it is a problem that is likely to worsen as increasing numbers of adult children take on the role of caregiver for their aging and ill parents. In order to recognize elder abuse, it is first necessary to understand what elder abuse is.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse is a general term used to describe one or more of the following:
- Physical abuse. Any time a caregiver or other person uses enough force to cause unnecessary pain or injury to an older person, even if they are attempting to "help," the behavior can be considered abusive. Behaviors that are abusive include hitting, pushing, kicking, burning, or biting. Physical abuse can also extend to over or under-medicating, depriving the person of food, or exposing them to severe weather. These acts can be deliberate or unintentional.
- Sexual abuse. This includes the infliction of non-consensual sexual contact or sexual exploitation of any kind.
- Emotional or psychological abuse. This type of elder abuse is more difficult to assess because there are no physical signs of abuse. It involves behaviors such as name-calling, insults, threats, isolation from others or treating the elder like a child.
- Financial or material exploitation. This can range from misuse of an elder's funds to stealing. It also includes improper use of legal guardianship arrangements, powers of attorney, or financial misrepresentations.
- Neglect. This is the failure of a caregiver to provide goods or services necessary to avoid physical harm, mental anguish or mental illness and includes abandonment, denial of food or health related services.
- Self-neglect. Sometimes older adults harm themselves by self-neglect. Examples include not eating, failure to go to doctor's appointments, take medications, etc.
Regardless of how elder abuses occur, the presence of any of these is a potentially dangerous situation for the older adult. In addition, there are often accompanying feelings of helplessness and isolation, which can accentuate the suffering.
What are the warning signs of elder abuse?
While one sign does not necessarily indicate abuse and could be due to a medical condition, some tell-tale signs of elder abuse include:
- Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may indicate the presence of mistreatment, physical abuse or neglect.
- Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
- Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
- Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
- Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
- Behavior such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by caregivers are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
- Strained or tense relationships and/or frequent arguments between the caregiver and the elder can also signal the presence of mistreatment.
How Can Elder Abuse Be Prevented?
The first step in preventing elder abuse is to recognize that no one, regardless of age or physical condition, should be subjected to violent, abuse, humiliating, or neglectful behavior. This awareness alone goes a long way toward preventing potential elder abuse problems.
Knowledge of available resources can also be a tremendous aid in preventing elder abuse. Caregiver stress is a significant risk factor for abuse and neglect, especially when the elder they care for is physically or mentally impaired. Caregivers in such situations often feel trapped and hopeless and don't know where to turn for help. Caregivers who utilize social services, both local and national, are less likely to reach their limits and resort to abuse or neglect with an elder. Some of the most common services include:
- Mental health assessments. These may be needed to determine if an older person is capable of meeting his or her own basic needs, or assessing their cognitive abilities. Assessments of alleged abusers' mental status are sometimes needed to determine if they pose a danger to others and are in need of treatment.
- Counseling. Therapeutic intervention may be necessary to help victims, caregivers or family members assess their options, resolve conflicts, and overcome trauma. Group or individual counseling may be available from a variety of public and private sources.
- Legal assistance. Legal counsel is needed in many abuse cases. The Older American's Act established a network of free legal services for persons over the age of 60. These programs are becoming increasingly adept at handling elder abuse cases.