Recognizing and Responding to Elder Abuse

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Abuse is frightening  and it comes in many forms: spousal, child, pet and even elder. While we do not like to think of it or even consider it in the realm of possibility, it is an ever-present danger and one that needs to be addressed and brought out into the open.

If you have a loved one living in a nursing home or under any other type of elder care situation, abuse from caregivers or even other residents is a possibility. Sadly, this abuse can fly under the radar and remain undetected, especially if the one being abused is unable to give voice to the abuse or fears retaliation from the abuser. It can become a vicious cycle.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging says there are as many as five million victims every year, while the National Center on Elder Abuse cites recent studies that estimate up to 3 percent to 5 percent of the elderly population in the U.S. has suffered abuse.

Nursing home abuse is a grave concern; seniors who have been abused suffer a 300 percent greater chance of death in the three years following the abuse than those who are not abused. Sadly, up to one out of six nursing home residents may be the victim of abuse or neglect annually. Although many residents are well cared for, abuse continues to be more prevalent than most people wish to believe; more than three-fourths of the cases of nursing home abuse are perpetrated by caregivers.

Elder abuse can present in many forms and often is not evident on the surface. The most common type is physical and is the intentional harm of an elderly person through the use of physical force, resulting in pain or injury. It can include bruising, restraining, hitting, slapping, force-feeding and punching. As a result, the victim may sustain broken bones, bruises, cuts, bedsores, open wounds and scars.

Psychological abuse comes into play when an elderly person is on the receiving end of insults, threats, harassment or emotional distress. This can be compounded if the individual suffers from memory loss problems, has issues with drugs or alcohol, or has a family history of violence. If an elderly person is experiencing emotional abuse, it may present itself through low self-esteem, hopelessness, depression or sudden mood swings. If you notice changes in behavior of the elder, such as nervousness around the caretaker, unusual behavior such as biting or rocking, or even forced isolation of the elder from the family, these could be indicative of abuse and should be addressed right away.

Another form of elder abuse is negligence, which is simply ignoring that person’s needs such as proper nutrition, medicine, clothing and shelter. Signs to look out for include malnutrition, dehydration, soiled clothing and poor hygiene.
Financial exploitation of a senior is also common. Red flags include money disappearing and unaccounted for; unusual purchases not made by your loved one; increased use of credit cards and frequent cash withdrawals or even adding someone new to bank accounts or credit cards. Signs of sexual abuse of a senior may include bruises around the breasts or genital area, difficulty with walking or standing, withdrawn behavior or even excessive flirtation or touchiness by the caregiver.

What do you do when you suspect your loved one has been a victim of abuse? First of all, family members of elderly adults should always maintain close contact with their loved ones and know the signs of abuse. Reporting it can be challenging, but necessary.

It is important to act immediately to keep the situation from worsening. In fact, filing a report can save someone’s life. Instead of confronting the alleged abuser face-to-face, however, it is advisable to communicate with key authorities who can further investigate the matter. Do not be surprised if the victim refuses help or even denies it is happening. When abuse is exposed, the victim may not be able to effectively deal with the trauma and may even feel defeated by embarrassment, fear or depression. Failure to report the abuse, however, is not in the best interest of the victim.

If you believe a situation requires immediate action, please call 911. You can also contact the Elder Care Locator’s hotline at 1-800-677-1116 or you can call the National Adult Protective Services Association in your state. Provide as much detail as you can in your description when filing a report. This allows key individuals investigating the case to understand the matter to a greater degree.

As we stressed earlier, while we don’t like to think about it, elder abuse is quite real. Abusers seek vulnerable people as their victims, and seniors often are perceived as easy to overpower.Further, they are less likely to report any abuse as they depend on others for their overall care. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you suspect it, then please report it without delay. Your loved one’s life could depend on it. ■

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