Most people are aware that seniors can be very vulnerable and that this population is often targeted by scammers and abusers. Elder abuse, whether it is physical, financial, emotional or sexual, is a real concern for family members of seniors, especially those who are physically disabled or cognitively impaired. However, there is another threat to the elderly that receives less attention: self-neglect.

What Is Elder Self-Neglect?

Imagine entering the home of an elderly loved one and being greeted by a foul-smelling odor that seems to have no identifiable source. The house is in disarray and there are papers, dirty dishes and other debris covering most of the countertops. Your loved one is wearing soiled clothing and appears as if they haven’t bathed in days or weeks, but they act as if everything is totally normal. Understandably, you’re shocked by this scene. The last time you visited just a few months ago, both their house and their physical appearance were nearly immaculate.

This is a classic example of elder self-neglect, and scenarios like these are often what initially cause family members to step into the caregiving role. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines elder self-neglect as “behavior of an elderly person that threatens his/her own health or safety and generally manifests itself by failure to provide himself/herself with adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medication (when indicated), and safety precautions.”


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The Impact and Prevalence of Self-Neglect

Elder self-neglect is a more prevalent problem than most people recognize. In fact, most research points to self-neglect being the most common form of elder abuse—a confusing statement, since this form of mistreatment doesn't involve others at all. Because self-neglect often occurs inside private homes and among isolated seniors, it is likely that reports do not fully represent the magnitude of this issue.

According to a 2009 study, self-neglect is not only damaging to one’s health but also potentially life-threatening. Through the collection and analysis of data from almost 10,000 seniors over several years, it was discovered that elder self-neglect was associated with a significant increase in premature death. This heightened mortality risk was most prominent in the year after self-neglect was reported to and/or confirmed by social services agencies, such as Adult Protective Services (APS).

Detecting and Preventing Self-Neglect Among Seniors

Self-neglect comes in many forms. Some elders stop taking their medications, others cease cleaning their homes, still others stop bathing and grooming themselves. The above study found that seniors who have limited or nonexistent social networks are more prone to falling into a dangerous pattern of self-neglect. This may also explain why long-distance family members are often blindsided by discoveries like the hypothetical one presented above when they come for infrequent visits.

The National Center on Elder Abuse recommends that family members and friends should keep an eye out for the following signs of self-neglect:

  • Confusion
  • Inability to handle activities of daily living (ADLs)
  • Inability to handle instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs)
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Excessive drinking or drug use
  • Frequent falls
  • Signs of poor physical health, such as weight loss, dehydration, poor medication adherence, etc.
  • Indicators that a senior is not getting care for problems with eyesight, hearing, dental issues, incontinence, etc.

Knowing How and When to Intervene

Self-neglect is increasingly common among seniors who are physically handicapped and/or cognitively impaired because they do not have the ability to properly care for themselves. However, some elders who are fully functional still make poor decisions that result in outcomes that appear to be self-neglect. The challenging aspect in cases like these is that competent older adults can make hazardous lifestyle choices freely and without intervention as long as they are not causing immediate harm to other people.

In fact, countless concerned family members struggle to get self-neglecting elders to accept assistance with personal care, housekeeping, medical care, and financial management. Some even resort to filing reports with social services agencies like APS to get their loved ones help. This can be an effective intervention if APS follows up on the report, conducts an investigation, and confirms that the elder is at risk and requires assistance, but this is not always a guaranteed solution. Typically, elders have the choice to accept or reject the services and supports offered to them.

“Self-neglectors with higher levels of cognitive and physical function may refuse suggested interventions by health care professionals and social services agencies, which then respect the elder's autonomy and rights to self-determination and will not intervene any further,” study authors note.

Seniors in the mild-to-moderate stages of dementia often fall into this gray area as well. Early on in the course of the disease, dementia patients are often able to “showtime” or compensate for their cognitive decline quite convincingly under certain circumstances. To make matters worse, patients may also be in denial of their compromised mental function or wholly incapable of recognizing their deficits (a symptom called anosognosia). This perfect storm makes it exceedingly difficult for family members, medical professionals and social services agencies to intervene in cases of self-neglect among seniors with dementia. In many cases, the senior must be officially deemed incompetent so that decisions can be made for them to protect their health and provide a safe and clean living environment.

Even if a self-neglecting senior doesn’t “officially” require outside care yet, it is important to keep a close eye on the situation. Illnesses or conditions that follow a progressive pattern, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Parkinson's disease, depression, or addiction may lead to a gradual loss of ability or interest in self-care. Sadly, as their situation deteriorates, it may take more than one APS report, a major medical setback or some other kind of emergency to instigate a full intervention and get a self-neglecting elder the help they need.

Sources: Elder Self-neglect and Abuse and Mortality Risk in a Community-Dwelling Population (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/184342); Home for the Holidays: What to look for when visiting an elderly relative (https://ncea.acl.gov/NCEA/media/Publication/Home-for-the-Holidays-What-to-look-for-when-visiting-an-elderly-relative.pdf)