Elder abuse is a significant problem that plagues older generations around the world. The American Psychological Association estimates that each year in America alone, approximately 4 million elderly people become victims of physical, psychological or other forms of abuse. This is a complex issue that can have a detrimental impact on a person’s health and their quality of life.
People often have misconceptions about elder abuse. They may only associate the term with those living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Although any elderly person could face this type of abuse, it is much more common for people residing in their own homes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, elder abuse is experienced by one out of every 10 people ages 60 and older who live at home.
Elder abuse is alarming for anyone who has an older loved one. You never want to think a caregiver, family member or anyone else could harm them, especially in their own home. However, knowing the signs of abuse, how to report it and how to choose the best caregiving service can help the aged and ensure your loved one gets the proper attention and care he or she needs.
Types and Signs of Abuse
Elder mistreatment is defined as intentional actions that cause harm or create a serious risk of harm — whether or not harm is intended — to a vulnerable elder by a caregiver or other person who stands in a trusted relationship with the elder, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. The abuse could take the form of physical harm, sexual abuse, domestic violence, psychological abuse, financial exploitation and neglect.
The signs associated with each type of abuse often are wildly different. Physical abuse, for example, could leave more obvious signs like scratches, burns, cuts, bruises, scrapes, welts or grip marks. In some of the more severe instances, it could also lead to fractured or broken bones, sprains, head injuries, spinal injuries or more. Physical abuse also could include sexual abuse.
Any sign of an unexplained injury should be taken seriously. Even if the person can “explain” how the injury happened, it is important to discuss it with them. You want to be sure they are not covering up for the actions of a friend, family member or caregiver. Refusing to go to a hospital or doctor for repeated injuries or a dismissive attitude or statements about injuries also could be signs of abuse.
Psychological abuse often may be more difficult to detect, although it could be just as serious. This abuse could cause the elderly patient to be uncommunicative and unresponsive, afraid or scared or even disconnected from friends and family. If they become evasive or have any unexplained or uncharacteristic changes in behavior, it could be a sign of emotional abuse.
Elderly people also are large targets for financial abuse. This exploitation is common among people over age 60 because many seniors do not realize the value of their assets or they may be unsophisticated about financial matters, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. Signs of this abuse could include missing checks, failing to make payments on time or missing them completely, forgery, missing credit or debit cards, missing property, insufficient funds in banking accounts of failing to pay for medical treatment or care as needed.
Neglect, according to the NCPEA, is the failure of caregivers to fulfill their responsibilities to provide needed care. “Active” neglect refers to behavior that is willful, meaning the caregiver intentionally withholds care or necessities. “Passive” neglect refers to situations in which the caregiver is unable to fulfill his or her caregiving responsibilities as a result of illness, disability, stress, ignorance, lack of maturity, or lack of resources
Generally, indicators of neglect include physical signs of poor care, behavioral characteristics of the caregiver and older person and the condition of the older person’s home. These environmental indicators could include a lack of food or mismanaged medication, unsanitary living conditions, dirty or soiled linens, unwashed or unclean clothing, animal infestations, unsafe housing or more.
Who Can Be An Abuser?
Surprisingly, family members often are the ones who abuse elderly people. According to the NCEA, about 90 percent of abusers are family members, which could include adult children, spouses, partners and others. Of those family members who abuse seniors, about 50 percent are adult children and 20 percent are intimate partners.
Additionally, family members who abuse drugs or alcohol, who have a mental or emotional illness and who feel burdened by their caregiving responsibilities could abuse at higher rates than those who do not. This is why preventing caregiver burnout is so important. If a caregiver begins to feel burdened, it may be time to seek outside caregiving services.
However, this does not mean family members are the only ones who could potentially take advantage of elderly people who live at home. Because they often rely on so many different people for care and day-to-day help, other possible abusers could include friends, neighbors and service providers, such as medical professionals and hired caregivers.
There is no pattern for abuse and no predetermined formula used to detect who could potentially be an abuser. As a family member, you could research to find the best possible care option for your loved one. Working with a reputable and experienced home care organization can help you find a credible and honest caregiver for your loved one.
How to Report Elder Abuse
Despite the accessibility of Adult Protective Services in all 50 states, as well as mandatory reporting laws for elder abuse in most states, a large number of abuse, neglect and exploitation cases go undetected and untreated each year, according to the NCEA. It is important to know there are several ways to report possible elder abuse, which is critical to stopping it.
If you suspect a loved one, an older neighbor, an acquaintance or friend is being abused, neglected or exploited, you should tell someone you know who can help or you can call APS. When you call, you do not have to be able to prove the neglect. You simply have to show concern that abuse may be happening. It is better to call than to wait until it is too late.
Do not be afraid of becoming involved in the situation if you think a person is in danger. The reporting agencies in each state are different, but every state has a service designated to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse and neglect. They will handle the case, so you do not have to get involved and you do not need to confront the alleged abuser.
If the abuse is severe or you think it will become life threatening, you should call 911. There should be no shame or no fear in making the call. If the person is in need, police officers will intervene and make the appropriate call on how to get the person the help needed. It is better to report any possible signs early rather than to wait until a tragedy occurs.
Prevention of Elder Abuse
Although not all acts of abuse and neglect can be prevented, it is important to know there are some things family members can do to ensure their loved one gets the proper care he or she needs. Families can be proactive in spending time with their loved ones, checking on them and visiting with their caregivers. Let your presence be known to both the elderly person who may need you and to any relatives and caregivers who interact with them.
Also, families can do extensive research on companies and caregivers before hiring them. It is important to get to know and trust the person in charge of caring for someone you love. Working with a reputable and established caregiving organization can give you more comfort knowing the employees are trained and qualified to perform the services they offer. Taking the time to find the right fit for your family can give you all peace of mind.
Sarah Blanchard is the marketing manager for Winburn Bequette, a nursing home abuse and neglect law firm representing clients in Arkansas and Missouri.