An estimated 5 million seniors are victims of elder abuse each year. According to The National Center on Elder Abuse, one in every 10 people over 60 who lives at home suffers some form of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Elder abuse is generally defined as any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to a senior. All 50 states have passed various elder abuse prevention laws, and while definitions vary from state to state, elder abuse is broadly defined by the following categories:
Physical Abuse: results in injury, pain or impairment (e.g. assault, battery, restraint)
Sexual Abuse: non-consensual sexual contact of any kind
Psychological/Emotional Abuse: willful infliction of mental or emotional anguish by threat, humiliation, or other verbal/nonverbal means
Financial Abuse: also known as exploitation, any illegal or improper use of a senior’s funds, property, or resources
Neglect: failure of caregiver to fulfill his or her caregiving responsibilities
Research shows that victims of abuse have shorter life expectancies than non-abused seniors. Elder abuse also leads to higher levels of psychological distress and additional health issues like depression, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Women are abused at a higher rate than men, and the older seniors are, the more likely they are to be abused.
Like other forms of abuse, the reasons for elder abuse can be extremely complex. Abuse is the result of a combination of psychological and social factors, and the mental and physical conditions of the perpetrator and the victim. The perpetrators can be anyone; men, women, friends, service providers, or strangers. However, in most cases, the abuse comes from someone who is known and trusted by the senior– 90 percent of abusers are family members. This is because so often, spouses and adult children become primary caregivers for their elderly loved ones.
Family members who feel burdened and stressed by their caregiving responsibilities abuse at higher rates, especially in cases where the senior is affect by dementia. According to the University of California, Irvine, Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect, 47 percent of dementia caregivers mistreat their loved ones. Other personal problems of abusers can also be factors, such as anxiety, depression, social isolation, addiction, or financial problems.
Warning Signs of Elder Abuse
One way for friends and loved ones to prevent or stop elder abuse from happening is to remain alert for any changes in a senior’s personality, behavior or physical condition. Some warning signs of abuse are:
• Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, or burns (physical abuse or neglect)
• Withdrawal from normal activities, a change in alertness, depression (emotional abuse)
• Sudden changes in financial standing (exploitation)
• Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, or unusual weight loss (neglect)
• Belittling, threats, uses of power and control by spouses (emotional abuse)
• Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between caregiver and senior
Another form of elder abuse that is extremely common is self-neglect. Self-neglect usually occurs in seniors with declining health or dementia, and those seniors who are isolated. Some signs of self-neglect include hoarding of objects, malnutrition, failure to take medications, leaving a burning stove unattended, poor hygiene, not wearing suitable clothing for the weather, confusion, inability to attend household chores, and dehydration. Self-neglect is one of the most frequently reported concerns. It is important for loved ones to carefully monitor a senior’s behavior if they suspect self-neglect.
Unfortunately, elder abuse is an issue that is often unreported. According to the New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, for every case of elder abuse known to programs and agencies, 24 were unknown. Many times seniors will not report abuse because of fear of retaliation, lack of physical or cognitive ability, or the fact that they do not want to get the abuser in trouble.
If a senior is in immediate danger from elder abuse, 911 should be called. If a loved one or friend suspects elder abuse is happening, they can contact Adult Protective Services, which is the social services program that looks into reported suspicions about abuse or neglect of people living in the community. If a senior is being abused in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman, the social service program that looks into reports of suspected abuse or neglect of those living in long-term care, can be alerted. It is important to remember that proof that abuse is occurring does not need to be provided; it is the job of professionals to investigate any suspicions.
“Turning the tide against elder abuse requires much greater public commitment, so every American will recognize elder abuse when they see it and know what to do if they encounter it,” said Kathy Greenlee, Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for aging.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.