It is estimated that one in ten older adults may experience elder abuse. In 90% of these cases, a family member is the abuser. If the senior lives with dementia, abuse by a caregiver is even more common. Studies show that as many as 50% of older adults with Alzheimer’s have suffered abuse at the hands of a caregiver.
The keys to reversing this trend are: understanding the different kinds of mistreatment, being educated about warning signs of each type of elder abuse, and understanding what to do if you suspect a senior is being abused.
Recognizing the Different Types of Elder Abuse
Some senior advocates believe that lack of education about elder abuse is one of the reasons it is so underreported. The general population doesn’t understand what constitutes abuse. To help educate people who have frequent contact with older adults about elder abuse, we have broken it down into five overall categories for concern. They are:
• Physical abuse
• Neglect or abandonment
• Financial exploitation or theft
• Sexual abuse
• Emotional and verbal abuse
Warning Signs of Elder Abuse
While most of us can’t imagine causing harm to a vulnerable senior, knowing the warning signs that might indicate an older adult you know is being abused is important. The most common signs include:
• Frequent, unexplained injuries
• Injuries that look suspicious such as burns, friction marks, lacerations, welts, puncture wounds
• Bruises, cuts and abrasions in areas of the body typically covered by clothing
Neglect or Abandonment
• Unintentional weight loss
• Soiled clothing
• Appearing to be dehydrated or malnourished
• Home environment that is unclean or even dangerous
• Bed sores
• Poor hygiene
• Depression and sadness
• Withdrawing from favorite social groups and hobbies
• Appearing to be anxious or fearful around caregiver
• Denying injuries or using implausible explanations for them
• Witnessing a caregiver belittling or yelling at the senior
• Money or checks that are unaccounted for
• Unusual purchases on credit cards
• Frequent ATM withdrawals
• A senior’s sudden lack of knowledge about their finances
• Overdue bills or phone calls from creditors about past due accounts
• Marks or bruises around wrists
• Bruises on or around private areas
• Torn or bloody underclothing
• Unexplained genital infections and diseases
• Fearfulness around caregiver
In addition to the warning signs you might detect in a senior, there are also caregiver behaviors that might point to abuse. A few of the more common ones include:
• Talking for the senior instead of allowing them to speak for themselves
• Preventing or limiting the amount of contact friends and family have with the older adult
• Big-ticket purchases on the part of the caregiver such as a new car or expensive jewelry
• Refusing to let people visit the senior without the caregiver being present
What to Do If You Suspect a Senior is Being Abused
Each of us have a duty to report elder abuse if we have reason to believe a senior we know is a victim. If it seems like the older adult is in immediate jeopardy, call 911 immediately. That is the best way to get them out of an unsafe environment quickly.
Depending upon the situation, there are additional avenues for help:
• If you are a family member, talk with the senior’s primary care physician. They might be able to help you determine if there is a problem or not. He or she may also be able to help connect you with resources for reporting the abuse.
• Every state has Adult Protective Service (APS) agencies. You can report your suspicions to them and they will initiate a face-to-face meeting with the senior you are concerned about.
• If you are concerned that an older adult you love is the victim of financial abuse, talk with their financial advisor, bank and/or attorney. They can help you determine if your concerns are valid and what to do next.
One final note is to remember that elder abuse happens to older adults of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Recognizing the warning signs and knowing what to do to help are the best ways to keep the older adults in your community safe.