Seniors are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. By the year 2050, the population of Americans aged 65 and over is expected to double to nearly 88.5 million people. Older Americans are also living longer and by 2050, it is estimated that 21 percent of our population will be 85 years or older. With longer life spans come chronic physical and medical conditions, which can leave older adults vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and exploitation. As many as 5 million American adults over age 60 experience some form of elder abuse each year, according to the National Center on Aging.
Elder abuse comes in many forms: It can be physical, sexual, psychological, or financial. Often two or more types occur in conjunction with one another. All can have devastating consequences for the victims.
What is elder abuse?
In general, elder abuse is defined as “any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult.” All 50 states have laws against elder abuse, which may encompass any of the following:
• Physical abuse: Inflicting physical pain or injury on a senior, such as by striking, hitting, pushing, shoving, or physical or chemical restraint
• Sexual abuse: Any nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind, including unwanted touching, coerced nudity, sodomy, or rape
• Psychological or emotional abuse: Inflicting mental pain or distress through such acts as verbal assaults, intimidation, humiliation, or threats
• Financial exploitation: The illegal taking, concealing, or misuse of funds, property, or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit, such as stealing an older adult’s money or possessions or cashing checks without authority.
• Neglect: Abandoning a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility to care for that person. Neglect may include failing to provide food, shelter, water, hygiene, medicine, or comfort.
Who are the most common perpetrators of elder abuse?
In almost 90 percent of cases, the perpetrator of abuse is a family member, such as an adult child or spouse. Oftentimes, the abuse is driven by financial stress, caregiver stress, substance abuse, or financial dependency upon the older person. Family members who act as caregivers are much less likely to engage in abusive behaviors when they have a strong social network to rely upon and are utilizing community resources to help care for the elder.
Elder abuse can also occur in nursing homes or other institutional settings, either on the part of caregivers or by other residents.
Who is at risk?
Elder abuse can happen to anyone. However, there are some known factors that increase the risk. Older adults who are socially isolated and lack social support are at significantly higher risk of becoming victims of elder abuse. So are people with dementia; in fact, a 2009 study showed that 50 percent of people caring for a family member with dementia had subjected that person to some type of abuse. Physical impairment or disability is also associated with increased risk of abuse. And older adults who live at or below the poverty level have a heightened risk of being abused.
Many older people who are being abused suffer in silence. They may be embarrassed to come forward to admit they are being abused, or they may simply not be capable of doing so. While not every sign listed here necessarily indicates abuse, there are some red flags that can signal that abuse is occurring and for which family members and concerned others should be on the lookout. These include:
• Signs of physical abuse, such as bruises, broken bones, cuts, or burns
• Unexplained changes in mental or emotional state, such as withdrawing from normal social activities or exhibiting signs of depression
• Bruising in the genital area
• A sudden unexplained change in financial situation, such as the inability to pay for amenities that the elder could previously afford
• Elder suddenly “voluntarily” giving uncharacteristically large amounts of money away for care or companionship
• Poor hygiene, bedsores, unattended medical needs, or unusual and unexplained weight loss
• Threats or belittling comments, or uses of power and control, made by the caregiver
How to get help
If you are being abused, or you suspect that an older person you know is being abused, please get help. There are many people and places that can offer assistance. If the elder is in immediate danger, call 911 or your local police department. For non-emergency situations, you should report the abuse to the appropriate authorities. Contact the Adult Protective Services (APS) agency in the state in which the elder lives to report suspected abuse. For concerns about abuse at a nursing home or long-term care facility, you may also want to contact your state or local Long-Term Care Ombudsman.
Also see Spotting Depression in Older Adults.