Elder abuse can happen in any setting, to older adults of any socioeconomic status, and at the hands of anyone. It can take many forms, including domestic violence, emotional abuse, theft, and even self-neglect.
This growing problem is both widespread and underreported. It is particularly important for long-distance caregivers and family members to keep an eye out for the signs below, but those who live near their aging loved ones should also remain vigilant.
Warning Signs of Elder Abuse
Keep in mind that some of the following red flags can indicate mistreatment, changes in an elder’s ability to live independently or both. For example, a caregiver may see or hear about physical injuries a loved one has incurred and suspect abuse. While that is one possibility, it may also be possible that this senior is not a victim of abuse at all but rather experiencing age-related decline or a new or worsening health condition that is contributing to accidents like falls.
If you notice or suspect any of these signs, it’s important to do your due diligence to investigate, determine the underlying cause and rectify the situation either personally or by reporting it to the proper authorities.
Signs of Physical Elder Abuse
- Bruises or pressure marks
- Broken bones
- Cuts, scratches or abrasions
Signs of Psychological Elder Abuse
- Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities
- Sudden changes in alertness and/or mood
- Symptoms of anxiety and/or depression
- Others belittling, threatening or controlling an elder
Signs of Financial Elder Abuse
- Sudden changes in an elder’s financial situation, spending patterns or financial need
- Missing funds or personal property
- Unusual changes in an elder’s budget, investment plan and/or estate plan
- Changes to the contact information and/or mailing address listed on a senior’s financial accounts or government benefits
- Late payment and collection notices
Signs of Sexual Elder Abuse
- Bruising or injury to the genital area
- Difficulty walking, sitting or toileting
- Genital, urinary or anal infections
Signs of Elder Neglect
- Bedsores (pressure ulcers)
- Unaddressed medical needs
- Poor hygiene
- Unusual, unexplained weight loss
Signs of Elder Self-Neglect
- Failure to take essential medications or refusal to seek medical treatment
- Poor hygiene
- Not wearing suitable clothing for the weather
- Inability to attend to housekeeping
- Struggling with or refusing to perform activities of daily living (ADLs)
How Long-Distance Caregivers Can Watch for Signs of Elder Abuse
The best way to monitor a loved one for signs of elder abuse is to talk and visit with them at their home regularly. Of course, this is easier for local caregivers, friends and family members to accomplish. In-person interaction is necessary because many older adults actively downplay their difficulties or attempt to hide them from trusted loved ones for a variety of reasons, regardless of whether they are being mistreated. This is often due to a fear of losing their independence. Perpetrators of elder abuse take advantage of this concern and use additional tactics like guilt, intimidation and lies to further manipulate their victims and keep them silent.
Respecting an aging loved one’s independence is crucial, but a concerned family member should strive to get a comprehensive understanding of their physical and mental health, financial situation, legal preparations, daily routine and goals for long-term care—usually in the form of a care plan. From there, putting your eyes on them and their living environment as often as possible is the only way to confirm that things are (or aren’t) as they are reporting over the phone, via email, etc. A home visit can tell a caregiver a lot about how their loved one is truly faring, which is why elder care professionals often rely on them to accurately assess and address older adults’ needs.
If you’re a long-distance caregiver or can’t keep a watchful eye on an aging loved one, it can be frustrating and stressful worrying about their welfare without concrete evidence. Fortunately, there are a few other options to help families watch for signs of elder abuse and monitor for other concerns.
Expand Your Care Team
Ideally, an older adult should be supported by a diverse group of people called their care team. This team often consists of medical professionals, elder care providers, informal caregivers, friends, legal and financial advisors, and even neighbors. If you’re concerned that your loved one may be vulnerable to elder abuse, consider expanding their care team for greater support and oversight.
This might include more formal steps like hiring in-home care or a geriatric care manager (now known as an Aging Life Care Professional). Even if you can’t manage to see your loved one in person as often as you’d like, these professionals can act as your eyes and ears. Of course, you’ll need to do your due diligence and thoroughly vet these individuals in person before officially adding them to the team. Another less formal option involves relying on your loved one’s trustworthy neighbors, friends or family who live nearby to help you keep tabs on the situation and report back to you.
Consider Adding Security Measures
When used correctly, technology can be a great asset for seniors and their family caregivers. Many families rely on security systems, smart home capabilities and other gadgets to monitor aging loved ones (and even professional caregivers) in real time. Understandably, some older adults see this as an invasion of their privacy, but others find this remote approach reassuring.
For example, so-called “nanny cams” have grown in popularity as a method of monitoring an aging loved one’s home and the people who visit. Automated and/or wifi-enabled devices like “smart” pill boxes, door locks, indoor/outdoor security cameras, and other tech may not be the complete solution for preventing elder abuse, but these tools can be a stopgap for family caregivers who are spread thin. The same goes for digitally monitoring a senior’s finances via online banking and apps, but only if a caregiver has explicit permission to access this information. Ideally, an older adult will grant this legal authority by naming a trusted individual as their durable power of attorney (POA) for finances and/or health care.
Know When It’s Time to Act
At some point, it becomes clear that a senior is no longer safe living alone in the community, whether it’s due to the threat of predatory individuals, age-related decline or both. Family members must be able to recognize when it’s time for an aging loved one to receive more help at home, move in with family, or relocate to a senior living facility. If a senior is already receiving in-home care or residing in a senior living facility and you have concerns about their welfare, then it’s important to consider changing care providers. Regular visits, open communication, a trustworthy care team and technology will help ensure caregivers near and far can detect and act on these concerns in a timely manner.
If you suspect that an aging loved one is being abused, contact the authorities right away. 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.
The National Center on Elder Abuse (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.
Sources: How to Spot Elder Abuse from Afar: Signs and Solutions for Long-Distance Caregivers (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-spot-elder-abuse-afar-signs-and-solutions-long-distance-caregivers); National Center on Elder Abuse: FAQ (https://ncea.acl.gov/FAQ.aspx)