How to Recognize and Report Elder Abuse

Vulnerable members of the population are sometimes, unfortunately, targets for abuse and neglect. Senior citizens are one of the most vulnerable demographic groups, as many live in group housing or depend on caregivers to complete daily functions, including food, taking medication, or even using the restroom. As members of the so-called Baby Boomer generation become senior citizens, elder abuse is becoming more apparent. 

Approximately one in six people over age 60 experienced some form of abuse in their community annually. The problem is even more apparent in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In these settings, two of every three staff members have committed some form of elder abuse in the past year. 

Like other forms of abuse, elder abuse can be difficult to spot because it often occurs at home or in a nursing home. This resource can help you to better understand and recognize elder abuse, as well as get the help you need to intervene and protect the seniors in your life.

Understanding Elder Abuse

According to the World Health Organization, elder abuse is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” 

Elder abuse covers physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but it can also include financial or material exploitation, neglect, abuse over the Internet, and abandonment. Psychological abuse is the most common form of elder abuse, followed by financial and physical abuse. 

Various laws at both the state and federal levels offer protection against elder abuse. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, most laws concerning this problem are state laws

At the federal level, the Elder Justice Act provides resources for state programs for agencies and ombudsmen who oversee long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. It also mandates reporting of suspected abuse in such facilities. 

The Elder Justice Act and state laws protect senior citizens from abuse, but they require someone to report the violations first. 

Signs of Elder Abuse

The signs of elder abuse are most evident in people who have risk factors such as advanced age, health or cognitive issues, and social isolation. Also, instances of abuse occur in a community or home setting, but they are most prevalent in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 

If you have a family member or loved one in a high-risk category, work in a long-term care facility, or are concerned about elder abuse, you should look for the following warning signs. 

Physical Abuse Symptoms

There can be both visible and less obvious signs of elder physical abuse. 

  • Some elder abuse sufferers have scratches, cuts, or burns. These minor abrasions can occur from daily activities, but abuse sufferers may have multiple abrasions or injuries in unusual places. 
  • Bruises can also be a sign of elder abuse, and you should pay special attention to multiple injuries. Someone who merely bumped into something would not have more than one bruise. 
  • Bruises near the thighs or genitals can also be a sign of sexual abuse. 
  • Broken bones or debilitating injuries are a more severe sign of physical abuse. 
  • Sometimes, physical abuse symptoms are related to a lack of care. An abuse sufferer may develop pressure sores or rashes when nursing home staff purposely neglect them. 
  • Even if there are no outward physical signs, elder abuse sufferers may display symptoms of depression, anxiety, or confusion. These signs may materialize because of physical mistreatment. 

Abuse sufferers may feel ashamed if they are victims of physical or sexual abuse. They may even make up excuses to explain injuries so that they do not have to deal with the shame that they feel for being abused. 

Common excuses can include that they accidentally injured themselves or fell. However, repeated “accidents” or implausible explanations are usually signs of physical abuse. 

Psychological Abuse Symptoms

Psychological abuse is the most common form of elder abuse, but it can be harder to spot because there are no physical symptoms. However, abuse sufferers commonly display noticeable indications of mistreatment. 

  • You may notice that a psychological abuse sufferer seems hesitant to talk freely
  • They may seem withdrawn in social situations and go out of their way to not interact with others. Sometimes, an abuse sufferer will completely isolate themselves. 
  • They may display symptoms of anxiety, such as appearing anxious when interacting socially. 
  • They may avoid eye contact when talking to you. 
  • They have noticeable and rapid mood swings or changes in behavior. 

Financial Abuse Symptoms

Financial abuse often gets ignored because it has no physical or psychological symptoms. However, you can still see evidence of financial abuse.

  • You may notice that beloved or valuable possessions go missing. If someone takes financial advantage of an older person, there is often a pattern of missing items. 
  • You may also notice unexplained cash withdrawals from an ATM or bank. You should pay special attention to withdrawals from ATMs that the person could not have made by themselves. 
  • You may see notices for unpaid bills or late payment fees.
  •  Utilities or services may get cut off because of unpaid bills.
  • If the senior citizen you are concerned about does not understand their financial situation, they could be prime targets for financial criminals.  

Financial abuse often occurs at home. A spouse, relative, or someone with whom the abuse sufferer has a close relationship is often the culprit. The abuser may feel that the property is rightfully theirs, or they may be worried about having to share an inheritance or become a beneficiary in the senior citizen’s will

A financial abuser may also have issues with drugs, gambling, or a failing business. 

In other cases, a perpetrator may defraud someone through a business or befriend an older person for no apparent reason. 

How to Report Elder Abuse

The way to report elder abuse depends on the severity of the situation. If you feel that a senior is in immediate danger, you should call 911 immediately. 

In instances where there is no immediate threat, you can use the ElderCare Locator to start reporting abuse. The ElderCare Locator is a service from the US Administration on Aging. You search by zip code or city or call the toll-free number (1-800-677-1116) to speak to an operator. 

This service provides a variety of resources for senior citizens. These resources include information about Adult Protective Services available in your area. Since many laws and protections are at the state and local levels, it is best to deal with local authorities when reporting elder abuse. 

Taking Legal Action Against Elder Abuse

You can connect with local adult protective services through the ElderCare Locator. When you have done this, you may wish to enlist the help of a lawyer. A lawyer can provide guidance in cases involving nursing home or assisted living home abuse or financial abuse from an individual or business. 

If the local Adult Protective Services authorities’ investigation provides evidence of malpractice or abuse, you can pursue compensation with the help of a lawyer.

In some cases, there may be enough evidence for criminal charges, such as assault or battery. In these cases, government prosecutors will handle the case. 

However, you can still get a lawyer for a civil lawsuit where you seek compensation for injuries and abuse. In these instances, you will usually work with a personal injury attorney

In instances of family disputes related to a will or finances, you may wish to work with a lawyer who has experience with family law

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