7 Things You Must Know About Elder Abuse

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About one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 has experienced some type of elder abuse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. Yet only about one in 14 cases is actually reported to authorities. One reason is that the signs of abuse can be difficult to spot: “It’s easy to claim that a senior doesn’t have enough money in their checking account to pay their bill because they have dementia, or that they got a bruise because they stumbled and fell outside,” explains Julie Schoen, Deputy Director of the National Center on Elder Abuse at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

It’s essential to be aware of the signs of elder abuse, as it dramatically increases rates of death and costs seniors billions of dollars each year. Here are seven things to know:

There are many different kinds of elder abuse

There are six main ways elder abuse manifests itself, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, and the reality is, “most elders experience multiple forms of abuse at the same time,” says Schoen. These include:

  • Physical abuse. Physical abuse may involve acts of violence like hitting, kicking and shoving, as well as force-feeding, using physical restraints, or using drugs inappropriately (for example, giving an elder sleeping pills when they don’t need it to keep them quiet). A 2018 report by AARP found that anti-psychotic drugs are increasingly being given to dementia patients for sedating purposes.
  • Emotional abuse. This includes verbal threats, insults, and humiliation.
  • Neglect. A caregiver’s refusal to provide basic care, such as food, clothing, housing, and medical care.
  • Abandonment. When a caretaker deserts an elder—taking them to a hospital or nursing facility and never coming back, leaving them at a public location such as a mall, or simply never returning back to the home.
  • Financial abuse. This includes forging signatures, misusing or stealing money, or coercing or tricking an elder into signing a financial document, such as a contract or will.
  • Sexual abuse. This includes all non-consensual sexual contact, whether it’s touching, intercourse, or taking naked photographs. An elder doesn’t have to be forced—if they aren’t able to understand and/or consent, it’s abuse.

Most of the time, the abuser is someone the elder knows

Contrary to popular belief, strangers and paid caregivers aren’t necessarily the ones who will be preying on your loved one. Almost 60 percent of the time, the abuser is a family member, most often an adult child or a spouse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.

“A common scenario is an adult child who moves in and immediately begins taking control of most aspects of the elder’s life, including finances,” says Adam Dodge, Legal Director of Laura’s House, a domestic violence shelter in Orange County, California. “If the elder has a diminished capacity, they may use that to take advantage of them by, say, asking for payment of rent or certain other monthly bills every few days.”

An older adult is more at risk if they’re socially isolated

Several studies have shown a link between social isolation and elder abuse. “It could be that seniors with fewer social connections are more likely to be susceptible to abuse, especially if they’re lonely, or it could be that the abuser attempts to isolate the person so they don’t get caught, or a combination of both,” says Schoen. If Mom used to love going to book club or visiting with neighbors, for example, and has stopped doing that since her caregiver moved in, it’s time to investigate.

Sometimes signs of elder abuse can be subtle

When you think of elder abuse, you may think of physical signs—a black eye, or a broken bone. But sometimes the clues are much less obvious. “If an elderly neighbor seems withdrawn and doesn’t look you in the eye when you see them at their mailbox and ask how they are doing, that could be a sign,” says Dodge. If your parent no longer appears interested in things that used to give them joy—like watching a favorite TV show or seeing photos of grandchildren—then that can be another sign that something is amiss.

Caregiver stress is not the main cause of elder abuse

For years, elder abuse was viewed as an unavoidable result of a well-meaning but overwhelmed caregiver. But experts now believe that caregiver stress isn’t the primary cause of elder abuse. Most caregivers are under stress, but most of them do not lash out. “There’s a difference between occasionally being frustrated with, say, a spouse or parent, versus the kind of constant, deliberate abuse that we see in these situations,” says Dodge.

Talking about money may help prevent financial abuse

Only 8 percent of people over age 65 who in the past fell victim to financial abuse actually discuss finances with another person, like a family member or financial advisor, according to a 2015 Allianz Life survey. But older adults who regularly talked to a third party about their finances report feeling better equipped to prevent future financial abuse. (Related: The New Medicare Card Scams to Watch Out For.)

“These can be hard discussions to have with a parent who may still view you as a child of 12,” notes Schoen. “It’s important to bring up the conversation in a non-judgmental way—for example, ‘I know you’re completely capable of paying bills, but to protect you against credit card or identity theft it might be a good idea to put me on any bank alerts.’” If you’re monitoring your parent’s accounts, you can keep an eye out for unusually large withdrawals or other suspicious activity that could indicate a family member or even a care provider is taking financial advantage.

If they resist, suggest handing that task over to a neutral third party, like a family friend, financial advisor, or estate attorney. It’s also good to have a family member or other trusted third party review checkbook and credit card statements once a month.

If you suspect elder abuse, act immediately

Abused elders have a 300 percent higher risk of death compared to those who aren’t, according to a Northwestern Medical Center study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And seniors lose more than $36 billion each year to elder financial abuse, according to a 2015 study published by True Link Financial, a financial services firm geared to retirees.

If you believe a senior is in immediate danger, call 911. Otherwise, a call to Adult Protective Services (APS)—the social services agency that looks into abuse or neglect claims of people living in the community—is in order, stresses Schoen. (You can find your local branch here.) If the abuse is occurring in a nursing home, call your state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, which investigates nursing home and assisted living facility complaints.

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