Understanding Elder Abuse
Elder abuse is a common problem in the U.S. It is estimated that 5,000,000 elders are abused each year. Recent data from the Adult Protective Services suggests that abuse rates are rising and elder abuse continues to be an important issue for our nation.
Elder abuse is never acceptable, yet it still happens every single day. In fact, the U.S. has implemented laws like the Older Americans Act and Elder Justice Act to specifically combat this societal problem. These acts allocate resources to supporting caregivers and prosecuting abusers. This ensures all elders are treated with respect and dignity.
Who Commits Elder Abuse?
Almost anyone can commit elder abuse, particularly individuals in a caregiving role. This includes caregivers in formal institutions, like nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as family caretakers within the home.
In fact, the most likely individuals to commit elder abuse are family members who feel obligated to become caregivers.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities tend to have the lowest levels of reported abuse. This could be due to better training and support systems and because community environments tend to minimize the likelihood of abuse occurring.
Resentment, fatigue and stress are common complaints of individuals who are not physically or emotionally prepared to be caregivers. This can lead to abuse that would never happen otherwise.
Types Of Elder Abuse
There are several types of elder abuse. Each form of elder abuse can occur in varying degrees, with mild to severe outcomes. The most devastating cases of elder abuse result in death.
The major recognized types of elder abuse are:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Financial abuse
The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that the most frequently reported form of abuse is physical abuse. Physical abuse occurs when elders are physically hurt by another person. The second most reported form is psychological abuse, followed by elder neglect.
Sexual abuse and financial abuse have the lowest number of complaints but are still common occurrences.
In many cases, more than one form of abuse will overlap. For example, elders who are sexually abused are also often physically and emotionally abused. It can also be challenging for authorities to distinguish between physical abuse and neglect, as the difference is often determined by the caregiver’s intent. Physical abuse tends to be intentional, while neglect can be accidental. However, there are exceptions to both.
Detecting Elder Abuse
It can be extraordinarily difficult to detect elder abuse. Aging bodies are more susceptible to illness, wounds and wear and tear. This can make it challenging to determine whether abuse has occurred.
This challenge, compounded by the shame and embarrassment elders often feel about their abuse, prevents them from coming forward. In addition, it is estimated that half of the abuse victims have mental impairments, preventing them from coming forward at all.
Therefore, it is important that elders, caregivers and loved ones educate themselves on the symptoms and signs of elder abuse and take measures to prevent it wherever possible.
Why Abuse Matters
Elder abuse is an important issue for our society, particularly as the population ages and more individuals become susceptible to it. Elders who have been abused suffer from a variety of negative impacts on their health and well-being.
Physical injury and pain are the most obvious impacts of abuse, but abuse can also worsen existing medical conditions or result in brand new illnesses. When the body wastes its resources fighting preventable injuries, it is more likely to suffer from other medical issues that would otherwise be manageable. The most severe cases of elder abuse, including emotional abuse and neglect, result in death.
Psychological and Financial Impact
All forms of abuse can also psychologically impact individuals. Abuse victims are more likely to become depressed, fearful or anxious. They may withdraw from social scenarios and become isolated from their community, essentially destroying their quality of life. Some abuse victims contemplate suicide or make drastic attempts to end their lives.
Meanwhile, financial abuse can financially ruin an elder trying to pay for food, housing and medication. Most elders do not have the opportunity to earn new income and, therefore, rely on their savings to survive. For this reason, financial abuse can be one of the most devastating forms of abuse.
Consequences of Abuse
To make matters worse, some government agencies have not devised adequate systems to report elder abuse as a whole. Different departments track abuse or neglect in nursing facilities independently from elders abused in their homes, according to a report from USA Today. Since every state has different regulations for what constitutes abuse and how they track it, plans to prevent elder abuse can get messy.
All forms of abuse can have consequences for the victim, so it is important to keep track of any warning signs in your loved one. In many cases, it may be up to a to a spouse, sibling or child to stop the physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse of a senior.
Elders at Higher Risk For Abuse
Several environmental and individual risk factors can increase the likelihood of elder abuse.
Individuals with mental impairments, such as dementia, are the most likely individuals to be abused. In fact, studies have indicated that about 50% of these individuals have been the victims of some form of abuse or neglect in their lifetime. Further, women are at a higher risk of abuse than men.
Additional abuse risk factors include:
- Social isolations and living alone at home
- Lower socioeconomic status
- Being over the age of 65
- Having poor medical health
- Having suffered former abuse
While these risk factors can increase the likelihood of an elder being abused, it does not guarantee it will happen. Likewise, individuals who do not have any of the abuse risk factors can still be victims of abuse.
Preventing Elder Abuse
The most effective way to stop elder abuse is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
A few ways to help people prevent elder abuse include:
- Educate caregivers, formal or otherwise, on elder care and abuse.
- Support caregivers and provide resources to alleviate caregiving challenges.
- Create communities for elders that encompass a variety of people, including family and friends.
- Foster environments of respect and dignity toward elders.
- Ensure good physical and mental health is maintained wherever possible.
- Enable elders to maintain their independence as much as possible.
- Allow elders to manage their own finances and direct deposit checks.
- Give elders a private phone that they are welcome to use at any time.
- Assist elders with running their own errands and appointments.
- Seek immediate help for mental health or addiction problems.
- Seek help and support for past abuses or domestic violence.
- Hire caregivers with exemplary records and clean criminal record checks.
- Develop laws and clear reporting mechanisms to prosecute elder abuse.
For additional information on preventing elder abuse, contact your state’s Adult Protective Services unit.
How To Report Elder Abuse
There are numerous ways to report elder abuse and help keep our communities safe. Each state has its own social support systems and specific methods for handling elder abuse.
Two common authorities that exist in all states are:
- Adult Protective Services (or Elder Protective Services): APS or EPS is a support system for elders and vulnerable adults who live at home. Each state has its own APS division directly responsible for investigating suspected abuse that occurs within the community.
- The Long-Term Care Ombudsman: The LTC Ombudsman is directly responsible for ensuring elders are safe within nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The Ombudsman’s office should be your first call if you suspect any form of abuse in a formal facility.
Any elder who reports an incident or has symptoms of abuse should be taken seriously. Their report should be followed by an investigation.