We generally think of children, the poor, and the disabled as most at risk for abuse, but as adults get older, even those who have always been strong become more vulnerable, and many become targets for abuse and scams. When older adults lose their ability to stand up for themselves, they need someone else to stand up for them.
Over 500,000 cases of elder abuse are reported each year in the United States, though it’s estimated that about one to two million older adults actually experience abuse or neglect. Risk for older adults increases because of increased physical fragility, dementia or decreased mental clarity, loneliness, or even frustrating behaviors that caregivers lack the patience or training to cope with. While abuse does happen in care institutions, family members are the most frequent perpetrators.
A victim may not report abuse because of shame, lack of resources, fear of retaliation, or even a desire to protect their caregiver, and they may need someone else to report abuse even if they don’t think they do. Below are 7 types of elder abuse, what to look for, and how to get help.
1. Physical Abuse
Physical abuse is the purposeful use of force against an older adult that causes pain or injury. This includes things like striking, pushing, kicking, and throwing things at a person, but also includes when drugs, restraints, or confinement are inappropriately used to limit mental or physical freedom.
Signs of physical abuse might include signs of restraint (like rope burns on wrists), bruises, welts, scars, broken bones or sprains, broken eyeglasses, a caregiver’s refusal to admit visitors, suspicious or unlikely explanations for injuries, untimely medical attention in response to injuries, or using multiple medical facilities instead of one consistent facility. An older adult experiencing physical abuse may become more withdrawn, timid, display increased signs of dementia, or pull away from family and friends.
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2. Financial Abuse
This is perhaps what we think of most when we think of elder abuse. It can happen via outside scams and gimmicks claiming to offer a prize or support a charity, and it can also happen in more subtle ways when a caregiver takes cash, property, or forages an older adult’s signature. Signs of financial abuse might be bills not getting paid, money going unaccounted for, unusual purchases, greater use of credit cards, more cash withdrawals, adding a new person to a bank account, or a caregiver taking money for a purchase that never appears.
Less obvious signs might be sudden changes in an older adult’s financial position, sudden or suspicious changes in wills or legal documents, or missing physical items.
3. Emotional/Verbal Abuse
Emotional abuse can be tough to spot as it usually happens behind closed doors and leaves no physical signs. Emotional abuse can include intimidation, yelling, threats, humiliation, blaming, ignoring the person, or isolating the person from others or from activities. An emotionally abusive caregiver may isolate an older adult from friends and family so that no one else is aware of what’s happening.
Signs that someone may be experiencing emotional abuse may include withdrawal, a strained relationship between the older adult and caregiver, rude or impatient comments from the caregiver, the adult’s nervous behavior around the caregiver, and behavior that looks like dementia such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling.
Neglect is the most commonly reported cause of elder abuse. Neglect may not spring from ill intent; rather, a caregiver or family member may not realize how much care an older adult actually needs, or they may be in denial about it. If this is the case, the subject is best brought up by another family member if possible.
Neglect, even if accidental, can lead to serious health concerns. Signs of neglect may include wearing dirty clothing, unsanitary conditions, mismanaged medications, bedsores, dehydration, malnutrition, or desertion. Less obvious signs of neglect can include unexplained weight loss, clothing that’s inappropriate for the weather conditions, or inappropriate living conditions, such as a home with fire hazards, no running water, or insufficient heat. Abandonment, or leaving an older adult alone for longer than is safe, is a form of neglect.