What Is Elder Abuse & What Can Be Done?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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Every year, thousands of elderly Americans are abused in their own homes, in relatives’ homes, in nursing homes and in other facilities responsible for their care. This article will discuss the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and how to act on behalf of an elderly person who you suspect is being abused.

As elderly individuals become more frail, they are less able to stand up to bullying or to fight back if attacked. They may not see or hear as well or think as clearly as they used to, leaving openings for unscrupulous people to take advantage of them. Mental or physical ailments may make them more trying companions for the people who live with them, sparking some abusive and violent reactions often out of their caretakers’ frustration. Frequently, these are family members such as adult children or grandchildren, or spouses, or they are nursing home workers. Elders may be harmed psychologically or physically, and don’t know how to or are simply afraid to report the abuse.

Types of Elder Abuse

Physical abuse – Physical abuse includes not only physical assaults such as hitting or shoving but also the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints, or confinement.

Emotional/psychological abuse With emotional or psychological senior abuse, people speak to or treat elderly persons in ways that cause emotional pain or distress. The abuse may be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal forms of abuse may include intimidation through yelling or threats, humiliation and ridicule, or habitual blaming or scapegoating. Nonverbal forms of abuse are ignoring the elderly person, isolating him or her from friends or other family members and activities, or terrorizing him or her.

Sexual abuse – Sexual elder abuse is contact with an elderly person without the elder’s consent. Such contact can involve physical sex acts, but activities such as showing an elderly person pornographic material, forcing the person to watch sex acts, or forcing the elder to undress are also considered sexual elder abuse.

Neglect or abandonment by caregivers Elder neglect or failure to fulfill a caretaking obligation constitutes more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse. It can be active (intentional) or passive (unintentional, based on factors such as ignorance or denial that an elderly charge needs as much care as he or she does).

Financial exploitation – Financial exploitation involves the unauthorized use of an elderly person’s funds or property, either by a caregiver or an outside scam artist. For example, an unscrupulous caregiver might misuse an elder person’s checks, credit card or bank accounts or . an outside scam artist might trick the elder person into investing in a phony investment scheme.

Healthcare fraud and abuse – Examples of healthcare fraud and abuse include charging for healthcare which has not been provided, overcharging or double billing for services, getting kickbacks for referrals or for prescribing certain drugs, over- or under-medicating, recommending fraudulent remedies for illnesses, or Medicaid fraud.

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Signs and Symptoms of Elder Abuse

Symptoms of elder abuse are often not recognized or taken seriously because they may appear to be signs of dementia or the elderly person’s frailty. Often caregivers may explain them away as nothing more than “signs of getting old”. Some of the signs, in fact, might overlap with mental deterioration. That doesn’t mean that you should dismiss them because the caregiver says so. While one sign may not signal abuse, watch for a number of signs. Here are some general warning signals to look out for if you suspect elderly abuse:

  • Frequent arguments between the caregiver and the elderly person
  • Drug overdose emergency or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should)
  • Unexplained bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, or burns
  • Broken eyeglasses or frames
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, unusual depression.
  • Sudden changes in financial situation
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss
  • Behavior on the part of the caretaker such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control
  • Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see elderly person alone
  • Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself
  • Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather
  • Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring, other fire hazards)
  • Desertion of the elder at a public place
  • Significant withdrawals from the elder’s bank or investment accounts
  • Items or cash missing from the senior’s household
  • Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies
  • Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden
  • Evidence of overmedication
  • Inadequate responses from caregiver to questions about care

The most important thing is to be alert. The elder’s suffering is often in silence. If you notice changes in personality or behavior, you should start to question what is going on.

What to Do If You Suspect Abuse

If you suspect elder abuse at home and you have reason to believe the elder is in imminent danger, call the police immediately. If you are not aware of immediate danger, but you suspect the older adult is being abused, virtually every state has an Adult Protective Services Agency as a component of their human or social services department.

If the abuse is occurring in a licensed long-term care facility, such as a nursing home or assisted living facility, call your state’s Attorney General’s office or a nursing home abuse attorney. Often states also have an ombudsman available for long-term care listed in your phone book in the state government listings.

The National Center on Elder Abuse maintains a list of phone numbers by state that you can call for assistance if you suspect either domestic or institutional abuse.

A Citizen’s Guide to Preventing and Reporting Elder Abuse is a free publication available in California by writing to Crime and Violence Prevention Center, 1300 I Street, Suite 1150, Sacramento, CA 95814 or going online. The information may be helpful even if you live outside of California.

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