If you or a loved one are dealing with elder abuse, call 911 and ask for police assistance. If you have other immediate questions, check out this page.
As the Baby Boomers age, our elderly/senior citizen population grows, and with it (sadly) the amount of elder abuse going on.
But what exactly is elder abuse?
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), federal guidelines defining it were established by the Older Americans Act Amendments of 1987. But these are just guidelines, and in practice elder abuse breaks down into the following categories, according to the NCEA:
- Physical Abuse – Inflicting, or threatening to inflict, physical pain or injury on a vulnerable elder, or depriving them of a basic need.
- Emotional Abuse – Inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
- Sexual Abuse – Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind, coercing an elder to witness sexual behaviors.
- Exploitation – Illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a vulnerable elder.
- Neglect – Refusal or failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care or protection for a vulnerable elder.
- Abandonment – The desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
It’s hard to get reliable statistics on elder abuse because it’s so often unreported. As a social worker I tend to see more institutional abuse (defined as mistreatment in a residential facility like a nursing home or assisted living situation) than domestic abuse (that is, abuse occurring in the home or at the hands of a family member). However, some statistics claim that 90% of abusers of the elderly are family members, so my experience might be an exception. Regardless, both situations are pretty horrific as the senior involved often has very little control of the situation. And it can affect people from any age, race, class, or background.
So how can you spot elder abuse?
Many of us have an older relative in an assisted living situation so it’s a concern. Typically, neglect is more common than any kind of physical or sexual abuse. What we most often see is a decline in overall mood or function, along with missed appointments with a doctor or social worker, failure to give medications or maintain acceptable hygiene. Sometimes this is deliberate (abusers find their way into all kinds of jobs) but very often it’s caused by understaffed facilities lacking properly trained people. Particularly in cases of physical abuse—if your elder shows up with bruises or other marks, find out what happened—the older person is hesitant to report what’s going on. Getting them to open up and understand that I’m not working with the abuser can be a real challenge.
If you suspect elder abuse is happening, the first step is to report it to the Department of Social Services. There’s an adult protective service which works a lot like child protective services in tracking down and dealing with abuse, and they’ll tell you what to do next. As always, if you think there’s immediate danger, call 911.
It makes me sad that we live in a society that doesn’t value the elderly as it should. We put our old people in nursing homes hoping they’ll stay out of the way. A big step in deterring abuse is just staying in touch with your elders, being an active part of their lives, and paying attention to what’s happening to them. These people our our parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors. They’ve got a lot to share, so make sure to reach out.