WILLIAMSON - Many elderly adults are abused in their own homes, in relatives’ homes, and even in facilities responsible for their care. In an effort to raise awareness and attention to this horrific problem, June has been proclaimed as National Elder Abuse Awareness Month by our nation’s leaders.
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. Civitas Media has researched documentation and conducted interviews regarding the warning signs of elder abuse, what the risk factors are, and how you can prevent and report the problem and will share those in this article.
What is elder abuse? Consider the elderly person in your community that you have spent time with in church services, civic meetings and neighborhood gatherings. When you see her coming to get her mail as you walk up the street, you slow down and greet her at the mailbox. She says hello but seems wary, as if she doesn’t quite recognize you. You ask her about a nasty bruise on her forearm. Oh, just an accident, she explains; the car door closed on it. She says goodbye quickly and returns to the house. The next time you see her; she is walking slowly with a limp and has a laceration above her eye. She leaves the house less than before and seems to have become a recluse. Something isn’t quite right about her. You think about the bruises and cuts, her skittish behavior. Well, she’s getting pretty old, you think; maybe her mind is getting fuzzy, maybe she’s getting clumsy. But there’s something else that you can’t quite put your finger on, something just isn’t right.
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.
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. Abuse of the elderly takes many different forms, some involving intimidation or threats against the elderly, some involving neglect, and others involving financial chicanery.
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 and habitual blaming or scapegoating. Nonverbal psychological elder abuse can take the form of ignoring the elderly person, isolating an elder from friends or activities and 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.
Elder neglect, the failure to fulfill a caretaking obligation, constitutes more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse. It can be active (intentional) or passive (unintentional).
Financial exploitation 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 or 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 and investment fraud.
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. Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person and changes in personality or behavior in the elder are identified as possible signs of abuse. If you suspect elderly abuse, but aren’t sure, look for clusters of the following physical and behavioral signs.
Things to look for include 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; a report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should); broken eyeglasses or frames or signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists or a caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone. In addition to the general signs above, indications of emotional elder abuse include threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior that you witness and behavior from the elder that mimics dementia such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself. Signs of sexual abuse may include bruises around breasts or genitals, unexplained venereal disease or genital infections, unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding and torn, stained, or bloody underclothing.
Neglect by caregivers or self-neglect on the part of the elder themselves id typically identified by signs of 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 not being bathed; unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather; unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring, other fire hazards) and desertion of the elder at a public place.
You are encouraged to keep a close eye on the elder’s finances and look for 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 or unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions.
Among caregivers, significant risk factors for elder abuse are the inability to cope with stress (lack of resilience); depression, which is common among caregivers; lack of support from other potential caregivers the caregiver’s perception that taking care of the elder is burdensome and without psychological reward and substance abuse. Even caregivers in institutional settings can experience stress at levels that lead to elder abuse. Nursing home staff may be prone to elder abuse if they lack training, have too many responsibilities, are unsuited to caregiving, or work under poor conditions.
Many seniors don’t report the abuse they face even if they’re able. Some fear retaliation from the abuser, while others believe that if they turn in their abusers, no one else will take care of them. When the caregivers are their children, they may be ashamed that their children are behaving abusively or blame themselves or they just may not want children they love to get into trouble with the law.
When reporting elder abuse, the first agency to respond to in most states is Adult Protective Services (APS). Its role is to investigate abuse cases, intervene, and offer services and advice. Again, the power and scope of APS varies from state to state. You may also report the abuse to your local law enforcement office.
Our elderly residents have lived their lives taking care of and providing for their families. When they reach the age or physical state they can no longer care for themselves, they deserve to be loved, to have their needs met and most of all, to live out the remainder of their lives in a safe haven without fears of abuse of any shape, form or fashion. Please do your part to assure your family member receives the best of care, and is never abuse at the hands of another.
Step forward and report elder abuse. The life you save in the future could very well be your own.