Top 10 Questions About Elder Abuse

What is elder abuse? What warning signs should a caregiver look for? And what can be done about it if abusing is happening? Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about elder abuse.

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is any knowing, intended, or careless act that causes harm or serious risk of harm to an older person— physically, mentally, emotionally, or financially. The term is quite broad and encompasses many different types of mistreatment:

  • Physical abuse: Use of force to threaten or physically injure a vulnerable elder.
  • Emotional abuse: Verbal attacks, threats, rejection, isolation, or belittling acts that could cause mental anguish, pain, or distress to an elder.
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual contact that is forced, tricked, threatened, or coerced upon another person, including anyone who is unable to grant consent.
  • Exploitation: Theft, fraud, misuse or neglect of authority, used as a lever to gain control over an older person's money or property.
  • Neglect: A caregiver's failure or refusal to provide for a vulnerable elder's safety, physical, or emotional needs.
  • Abandonment: Desertion of a frail or vulnerable elder by anyone with a duty of care.
  • Self-neglect: An inability to understand the consequences of one's own actions or inaction, which leads to harm or endangerment.

How Can I Tell if Someone is Being Abusive?

Unfortunately, abusers are not always easy to spot. Adding to the problem, victims may not be physically or mentally able to report their abuse, or they may be isolated and too afraid or ashamed to tell someone.

The great majority of abusers are family members, most often an adult child or spouse.

Abuse can also occur at a long-term care facility, such as a nursing home or assisted living residence. Employees and temporary staff who have direct contact with residents are the most frequent perpetrators.

Other offenders may include other family and old friends, newly developed "friends" who intentionally prey on older adults, and service providers in positions of trust.

While there is no typical profile of an abuser, the following are some behavioral signs that may indicate problems:

  • Abusing alcohol or other drugs
  • Controlling elder's actions: whom they see and talk to, where they go
  • Isolating elder from family and friends, which can increase dependence
  • Emotional/ financial dependency on elder, inability to be self‐sufficient
  • Threatening to leave or send elder to a nursing home
  • Appearing to be indifferent to elder, seeming apathetic or hostile
  • Minimizing an elder's injuries, blaming victim or others for the abuse, neglect, or exploitation
  • Threatening to harm an elder's pet
  • Calling the elder names
  • Previous criminal history
  • Mental illness
  • Longstanding personality traits (bad temper, hypercritical, tendency to blame others for problems)

In long term care settings, some other potential risk factors of elder abuse in long-term care are:

  • Negligent hiring practices (hiring violent criminals, thieves, and drug users to work as aides, maintenance workers, etc.; failing to do required background checks)
  • Too few staff, high turnover, and inadequate training
  • Reliance on staff who lack compassion or empathy for older people and those with disabilities
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