Emotional Elder Abuse

Emotional elder abuse is a very damaging form of abuse that can lead to severe mental anguish in an already vulnerable population. Nursing home emotional abuse may include threats, humiliation, and insults. Believed to be the most common form of abuse, emotional elder abuse has an incidence rate of 54.1%. Know the signs to protect your loved one.

What Is Emotional Elder Abuse?

Unlike the other forms of elder abuse and neglect, such as physical or sexual abuse, emotional elder abuse is somewhat more difficult to define, and certainly more difficult to prove.

The generally accepted definition of emotional elder abuse is, “intentional infliction of anguish, pain, or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts.” This includes threatening, harassing, intimidating, and attempting to humiliate an elderly individual.

Examples of emotional elder abuse include:

  • Degrading statements
  • Humiliating language
  • Intentionally causing long waits for food, medication, or basic care
  • Interfering with decision making
  • Making false accusations
  • Verbal aggression
  • Placing an elder’s assistive devices out of reach (walker, cane, glasses, or dentures)
  • Scolding elderly individuals
  • Threats of social isolation

In short, emotional elder abuse involves controlling the elderly person’s freedom to intentionally cause feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and emotional pain. This type of abuse can have a severe negative impact on the mental health and overall well-being of elders.

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Types of Emotional Elder Abuse

Generally speaking, there are two types of emotional elder abuse: verbal and non-verbal emotional abuse. Non-verbal emotional elder abuse can be particularly difficult to prove, however, both types can cause the victim severe emotional pain and suffering.

Examples of Verbal Emotional Elder Abuse

  • Being mean or extremely cold
  • Blaming the elderly person, especially for things beyond their control
  • Causing guilt or shame
  • Embarrassing the individual, especially when others are around
  • Insulting, ridiculing, or name-calling
  • Intimidating
  • Talking to the nursing home resident as if they were a child
  • Threatening to harm the elderly individual
  • Yelling, screaming, or swearing

Examples of Non-Verbal Emotional Elder Abuse

  • Hiding personal belongings
  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Ignoring the individual
  • Isolating an elderly individual from other residents
  • Limiting access to basic necessities, such as food, water, or the restroom
  • Restricting a person from socializing
  • Terrorizing when no one is around

In addition to being either verbal or non-verbal, emotional elder abuse can be intentional or unintentional. This depends on whether the abuser wants to hurt the victim, or if they are overly stressed from caregiving and lash out against their own will.

Indicators of Emotional Abuse in Elderly

Emotional elder abuse is often not apparent, even to the victims themselves. It is therefore very important to know the indicators of emotional abuse in the elderly.

Some indicators that emotional elder abuse may be occurring include:

  • Agitation
  • Avoidance of eye contact with a specific caregiver
  • Confusion that is unrelated to any health problems
  • Cowering when the abuser is around
  • Fear
  • Increasing depression
  • Nervousness
  • Passivity
  • Reluctance to talk openly
  • Sadness
  • Self-neglect
  • Sudden changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Withdrawal

These indicators serve only as a guide for suspecting cases of emotional elder abuse. It is important to note that the presence of one or more of these behaviors is not definitive proof but rather should trigger further investigation.

Sadly, if emotional elder abuse is occurring, it may also mean that other types of abuse are occurring. This makes it imperative to take all warning signs seriously to keep vulnerable individuals free from harm and distress.

Diagnosing Nursing Home Emotional Abuse

Because many residents in care facilities have cognitive, neurologic, or psychiatric conditions, diagnosing nursing home emotional abuse can be tricky.

Factors such as fear of retaliation make it common for nursing home and assisted living residents to keep emotional abuse to themselves. Abuse victims also tend to be so dependent on others for care, they do not want to upset their abusers more, thereby putting themselves at increased risk of neglect.

The most effective way to diagnose nursing home emotional abuse is for family members to ask neutral questions. Adult children are often able to identify if elder mistreatment is occurring with their parents.

Nursing home residents should be interviewed alone, and physicians should encourage their patients to provide detailed information.

A red flag to take careful note of is any caregiver who interrupts the resident to answer questions for them. Hovering caregivers are also people to monitor more carefully than others.

How to Report Emotional Elder Abuse

Reporting emotional elder abuse is of the utmost importance. Chronic abuse will not stop on its own. It may also mean that other, more dangerous forms of abuse are occurring. These troubling factors make it necessary for others to intervene promptly.

If you think someone is in immediate danger, call 911 to get help right away.

If you suspect your loved one is being emotionally abused, talk with them when you’re alone. Offer to get them outside help, such as by contacting Adult Protective Services (APS) for them. You may also call the Eldercare Locator hotline at 1-800-677-1116 to get help with properly reporting emotional elder abuse.

Most states require that doctors report elder abuse. However, family and friends can also report it. Help is available, please do not wait.

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Treating Cases of Elder Emotional Abuse

Victims of elder emotional abuse may be placed in adult day care or have other special services provided to ensure their safety. Additional ways to treat elder emotional abuse include counseling and medication.

Elder emotional abuse may cause the victim to feel depressed, scared, or extremely anxious. Talking through their feelings with a counselor may offer some relief.

If counseling alone does not help, the elderly individual’s health care provider may also prescribe medication for relaxation or help with sleeping.

Statistics About Emotional Elder Abuse

Emotional elder abuse is the most common form of elder abuse. Sadly, it is often considered a normal part of caregiver stress and is not properly reported and documented.

In a study by the National Institutes for Health (NIH), interviews with a group of over 200 nursing home staff members indicated that, “a total of 81% of the staff reported that they had observed and 40% had committed at least one incident of psychological abuse during the same 12-month period.”

The NIH report also uncovered the following alarming statistics:

  • 70% of staff said they observed other staff yelling at residents
  • 50% of staff said they witnessed a fellow staff member insulting residents

The staff members who were interviewed reported that their fellow caregivers committed substantial levels of abusive behavior. The most common type of emotional elder abuse was yelling at a resident with swears or insults.

Other Types of Elder Abuse

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes five categories of elder abuse: physical, financial, sexual, psychological, and neglect.

“Regardless of the type of abuse, it will certainly result in unnecessary suffering, injury or pain, the loss or violation of human rights, and a decreased quality of life for the older person.”

– The World Health Organization

Physical Abuse

Physical elder abuse causes harm or impairment and generally includes hitting, slapping, pushing, or striking with objects. It may also include unnecessary physical or chemical restraints.

Financial Abuse

Financial elder abuse, also called financial exploitation, includes stealing money or belongings from an older adult. It can also include forgery, taking a person’s Social Security benefits, or accessing their credit cards and bank accounts without permission.

In some instances, elder financial abuse involves changing wills, life insurance policies, or names on titles.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual elder abuse is when a caregiver forces an older adult to watch or take part in sexual acts. This includes any non-consensual contact and unwanted sexual talk.

Nursing Home Neglect

Nursing home neglect is an all too common form of elder abuse and generally entails a caregiver failing to provide adequate food, water, medicine, clothing, shelter, or supervision. It is still a rampant problem that needs urgent attention but has gotten more publicity in recent years.

Filing a Nursing Home Emotional Abuse Lawsuit

Filing a nursing home emotional abuse lawsuit is best handled by experienced nursing home abuse lawyers. These lawyers, dedicated to issues arising in nursing homes, have the unique experience that is required to prove emotional abuse cases and secure compensation.

An experienced nursing home lawyer may also be able to recover punitive damages, which is money awarded to punish a defendant.

If an emotional abuse case is proven, punitive damages may set the example needed to prevent this type of abuse from happening to others.

If you think your loved one is a victim of emotional elder abuse, get a free legal case review today.

You deserve justice. Get a free legal case review now.

Author:Nursing Home Abuse Justice Team
Nursing Home Abuse Justice Team

Nursing Home Abuse Justice was founded to shine a light on nursing home and elder abuse. Every day, thousands of people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are abused. Our team helps educate seniors and their loved ones on the common causes, signs and preventions of nursing home abuse. We report on real-world studies and current events from respected news outlets to expose this national problem.

Last modified: June 11, 2021

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