The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) defines elder abuse as “any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to an older adult.”
Elder abuse can take many forms and may be deliberate or stem from incompetence or inattentiveness. An analysis of 52 studies on elder abuse from 28 different countries found that one in six (15.7 percent) older adults worldwide are affected, totaling approximately 141 million people. Sadly, research has suggested that the actual prevalence of mistreatment of elderly individuals is much higher than current estimates due to significant underreporting.
Family members and friends often feel that their aging loved ones are unlikely to fall victim to elder abuse, especially if they are still living independently in the community. In fact, families tend to be more concerned about the risk of abuse in long-term care settings like assisted living facilities and nursing homes. However, the NCEA states that “most cases of elder abuse are perpetrated by known and trusted others,” including family members, friends, service providers, peers, and strangers.
It is crucial to spread awareness of this sad but common problem and educate seniors, family caregivers, individuals who work in the elder care industry and the public at large. This includes understanding the different forms of abuse, who is at risk, who typically commits these acts, what signs of abuse to keep an eye out for, ways to best support seniors and family caregivers, and how to report suspected mistreatment.
Types of Elder Abuse
Physical abuse constitutes the use of physical force, which may result in bodily injury, illness, physical pain, impairment or even death. This includes acts such as hitting, pushing, shoving, shaking, slapping, kicking, pinching and burning.
Emotional and psychological elder abuse can be difficult to detect since they do not leave visible marks like physical abuse often does. The NCEA defines this type of abuse as “the infliction of anguish, pain, or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts including, but not limited to, verbal assaults, insults, threats, intimidation, humiliation, isolation, and harassment.”
The illegal or improper use of an older adult's assets constitutes financial elder abuse. Abusive actions might include cashing a senior’s social security or pension checks without permission, stealing money or property from the elder, coercing or deceiving the elder into parting with property or signing documents, or misusing power of attorney, conservatorship or guardianship.
Neglect occurs when a caregiver fails to adequately provide a senior with basic necessities like food, water, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medication or medical care, and safety.
This may occur when a caregiver unintentionally fails to provide adequate care, or it may happen when a caregiver lacks the knowledge about how to provide the care. Abandonment, a subtype of this form of elder abuse, may occur when a caregiver is unable to cope with the stresses of caregiving.
It is important to note that self-neglect is also a form of abuse. Whether intentional or unintentional, any adult who puts their own health, safety or well-being at risk due to malnourishment or unsanitary or hazardous living conditions is considered to be in danger.
Yes, unfortunately this happens to older adults. Sexual contact or interaction of any kind without a senior’s consent or with a senior who is unable to give consent is considered sexual abuse.
How to Prevent Elder Abuse
Support Vulnerable Seniors
While there is no set list of factors that definitively increases a senior’s risk of mistreatment, research has uncovered a few patterns and trends. Much of this risk has to do with an elder’s unique situation, but an article published in The Gerontologist identified the following risk factors for elder abuse that are supported by strong evidence:
- Living alone
- Functional dependence/disability
- Poor physical health
- Cognitive impairment
- Poor mental health
- Low income/socioeconomic status
On the flip side of this equation, the same study identified the following risk factors for perpetrators of elder abuse:
- Mental illness
- Substance abuse/misuse
- Dependency on victims for emotional support, financial support, housing or other assistance
Social support and safe, secure living arrangements for older adults have shown a strong protective effect against elder abuse. Potential perpetrators are far less likely to prey upon a senior who is part of a robust network of individuals who regularly and independently confirm their physical and mental well-being, support their needs, and advocate for them. Most older adults live in the community with the goal of aging in place. However, even if elders are supported by a network of genuinely caring individuals, in-person visits—especially from long-distance family and friends—tend to be infrequent and brief. Respecting seniors and their independence is crucial, but preventing and detecting elder abuse also requires vigilance and attention to detail.
Support Family Caregivers
While many family caregivers are devoted adult children, spouses, grandchildren, siblings and friends, the difficult truth is that this role is an incredibly challenging one. Part of supporting our aging population and protecting them from abuse is ensuring they have quality care options to choose from and providing family caregivers with the support they need.
Even the most compassionate, committed caregivers are at risk of developing caregiver burnout and resentment. Left unchecked, burnout can affect their physical and mental health, progress to compassion fatigue, and even lead to neglect or abuse.
When family caregivers who are facing their own struggles in life feel they have no choice in taking on this responsibility, the results can be devastating for them and their care recipients. Safe, well-regulated and affordable elder care options are crucial for providing seniors with the assistance they need and family caregivers with invaluable respite time to recharge.
Report Suspected Abuse
Anyone who suspects an older adult is being neglected or abused should notify the authorities immediately. Whom to contact often depends on the nature of the situation, where the senior resides, and the laws and resources in their particular state and/or county. Points of contact commonly include adult protective services (APS) programs, police departments or sheriff’s offices, departments of health and/or human services, and long-term care ombudsman programs.
Federal and state laws stipulate that many types of professionals are required to report any suspicions of possible elder abuse to proper authorities. For example, physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers and peace officers are all required by law to report suspected mistreatment.
The NCEA has compiled a list of mandatory reporting laws, government agencies and elder abuse information by state for the public to reference easily. You can access these state-specific resources here.