As people grow older, they are less able to take care of and protect themselves. They depend on caregivers and family to ensure their safety and well-being. You need to know what the signs of abuse are and how to end that abuse when you see it. It's among the most important things you will ever learn.
People who are elderly - whether they live alone or in a nursing home - are vulnerable to various forms of abuse, ranging from financial exploitation to neglect and psychological and/or physical abuse. Consider, for example, these numbers from the National Council on Aging:
- Approximately 10% of Americans who are 60 or older are victims of some form of elder abuse
- According to several recent studies, as many as 5 million elderly people experience abuse every year
- The precise number of those who experience abuse is not known, because only about 1 in 14 cases of senior abuse is ever reported to appropriate authorities
- In more than 60% of cases, the perpetrator of the senior abuse is a member of the family
- Two thirds of perpetrators are either adult children or spouses
If you are a family member with responsibility for the care of an elderly parent, or you work in a facility like a nursing home or other long-term care facility, you have a moral responsibility to look for the signs in order to prevent elder abuse or to report current abuse to the appropriate authorities.
Signs of elder abuse can sometimes be subtle, which is one of the reasons they're often missed or overlooked by caregivers. Another barrier to reporting, stopping or preventing abuse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, is the fact that many elderly persons are reticent to contact authorities. Sadly, this is often because they fear retaliation.
What Is Elder Abuse?
The first step to recognizing elder abuse is to know what it is. The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse defines it as follows:
"Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to an older person…The abuse could take the form of domestic violence, financial exploitation, neglect, physical harm, psychological abuse or sexual abuse."
What Are the Signs to Know to Report or Prevent Elder Abuse?
Abuse of older Americans takes many forms, which is one of the reasons it can be so difficult to identify. That said, here are 4 common signs you should know to catch or prevent elder abuse:
- A sudden lack of money: Financial exploitation is among the more typical forms of elder abuse. Unscrupulous caregivers get access to bank accounts or credit card numbers are steal money from the person in their care. Some of the signs of potential financial exploitation include missing checks, the failure to pay bills, missing debit or credit cards, or missing property (especially valuable property like jewelry or silver).
- Unsanitary living conditions: Neglect of the elderly is common. Caregivers who are lazy, or simply don't care, fail to create sanitary conditions, something which can lead to serious health problems. To identify the presence of neglect, look for dirty clothing or living conditions, bedsores, malnutrition, dehydration, or prescribed medications which are not being taken regularly.
- Cuts, scratches, and injuries: Considered by many to be the most heinous form of elder abuse, physical abuse can range from mild or moderate to severe. Look especially for a pattern of injuries, which could range from simple cuts and scratches to broken bones and even head injuries resulting in brain damage. A particularly serious form of physical abuse is sexual abuse. Most elder sexual abuse (approximately 70%) takes place in nursing homes, but it can also happen in the victim's or the perpetrator's home. To spot sexual abuse, look for behaviors like confusion and sudden memory loss.
- Withdrawal and lack of communication: Many perpetrators, although they don't physically injure their victims, do something which can be equally damaging. Psychological abuse can include calling the victim names, repeatedly bullying or yelling at them, leaving them alone for long periods of time, keeping friends and family members away, or simply refusing to communicate with them at all. To spot psychological abuse, look for marked behavioral changes, typically withdrawal, fear, and lack of communication.
How Do You Report Elder Abuse?
If you think someone is the victim of elder abuse, you need to report it to the appropriate authorities. First, you need to carefully document the abuse. For example, you should record any changes in behavior you note, take photographs of injuries (and write accompanying descriptions), and record statements from both the victim and any witnesses.
If the victim is living in a nursing home or other facility, you should contact that facility's long-term care ombudsman. There is an ombudsman program in all 50 states. The ombudsman's job is to serve as an advocate for facility residents, and to resolve complaints. If the abuse is severe or you believe the victim is in danger of imminent physical harm, you need to call 911 immediately.
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