Warning Signs, Risk Factors, Prevention, and Help Many elderly adults are abused in their own homes, in relatives’ homes, and even in facilities responsible for their care. If you suspect that an elderly person is at risk from a neglectful or overwhelmed caregiver, or being preyed upon financially, it’s important to speak up. Learn about the warning signs of elder abuse, what the risk factors are, and how you can prevent and report the problem.
What is Elder Abuse?
As elders become more physically frail, they’re less able to stand up to bullying and or fight back if attacked. They may not see or hear as well or think as clearly as they used to, leaving openings for unscrupulous people to take advantage of them. Mental or physical ailments may make them more trying companions for the people who live with them.
Many seniors around the world are being abused: harmed in some substantial way often by people who are directly responsible for their care.
In the U.S. alone, more than half a million reports of abuse against elderly Americans reach authorities every year, and millions more cases go unreported.
Where does elder abuse take place?
Elder abuse tends to take place where the senior lives: most often in the home where abusers are apt to be adult children; other family members such as grandchildren; or spouses/partners of elders. Institutional settings, especially long-term care facilities, can also be sources of elder abuse.
The different types of elder abuse
Abuse of elders takes many different forms, some involving intimidation or threats against the elderly, some involving neglect, and others involving financial chicanery. The most common are defined below.
Physical elder abuse is non-accidental use of force against an elderly person that results in physical pain, injury, or impairment. Such abuse includes not only physical assaults such as hitting or shoving but the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints, or confinement.
In emotional or psychological senior abuse, people speak to or treat elderly persons in ways that cause emotional pain or distress.
Verbal forms of emotional elder abuse include:
- Intimidation through yelling or threats
- Humiliation and ridicule
- Habitual blaming or scapegoating
Nonverbal psychological elder abuse can take the form of
- Ignoring the elderly person
- Isolating an elder from friends or activities
- Terrorizing or menacing the elderly person
Sexual elder abuse is contact with an elderly person without the elder’s consent. Such contact can involve physical sex acts, but activities such as showing an elderly person pornographic material, forcing the person to watch sex acts, or forcing the elder to undress are also considered sexual elder abuse.
Neglect or abandonment by caregivers
Elder neglect, failure to fulfill a care-taking obligation, constitutes more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse. It can be active (intentional) or passive (unintentional, based on factors such as ignorance or denial that an elderly charge needs as much care as he or she does).
This involves unauthorized use of an elderly person’s funds or property, either by a caregiver or an outside scam artist.
An unscrupulous caregiver might
- Misuse an elder’s personal checks, credit cards, or accounts
- Steal cash, income checks, or household goods
- Forge the elder’s signature
- Engage in identity theft
Typical rackets that target elders include
- Announcements of a “prize” that the elderly person has won but must pay money to claim
- Phony charities
- Investment fraud
Healthcare fraud and abuse
Carried out by unethical doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, and other professional care providers, examples of healthcare fraud and abuse regarding elders include
- Not providing healthcare, but charging for it
- Overcharging or double-billing for medical care or services
- Getting kickbacks for referrals to other providers or for prescribing certain drugs
- Overmedicating or undermedicating
- Recommending fraudulent remedies for illnesses or other medical conditions
- Medicaid fraud
Signs and symptoms of elder abuse
At first, you might not recognize or take seriously signs of elder abuse. They may appear to be symptoms of dementia or signs of the elderly person’s frailty — or caregivers may explain them to you that way. In fact, many of the signs and symptoms of elder abuse do overlap with symptoms of mental deterioration, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them on the caregiver’s say-so.
General signs of abuse
The following are warning signs of some kind of elder abuse:
- Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person
- Changes in personality or behavior in the elder
If you suspect elderly abuse, but aren’t sure, look for clusters of the following physical and behavioral signs.
- Physical abuse
- Unexplained signs of injury such as bruises, welts, or scars, especially if they appear symmetrically on two side of the body
- Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations
- Report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should)
- Broken eyeglasses or frames
- Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists
- Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone
- Emotional abuse
In addition to the general signs above, indications of emotional elder abuse include:
- Threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior that you witness
- Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself
- Sexual abuse
- Bruises around breasts or genitals
- Unexplained venereal disease or genital infections
- Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
- Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing
- Neglect by caregivers or self-neglect
- Unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration
- Untreated physical problems, such as bed sores
- Unsanitary living conditions: dirt, bugs, soiled bedding and clothes
- Being left dirty or unbathed
- Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather
- Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring, other fire hazards)
- Desertion of the elder at a public place
- Financial exploitation
- Significant withdrawals from the elder’s accounts
- Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition
- Items or cash missing from the senior’s household
- Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies
- Addition of names to the senior’s signature card
- Unpaid bills or lack of medical care, although the elder has enough money to pay for them
- Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden
- Unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions
- Healthcare fraud and abuse
- Duplicate billings for the same medical service or device
- Evidence of overmedication or undermedication
- Evidence of inadequate care when bills are paid in full
- Problems with the care facility: poorly trained, poorly paid, or insufficient staff; crowding; inadequate responses to questions about care