June 15 Is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Sad senior woman

According to experts, 10 percent of older adults are the victim of elder abuse—yet only a small percentage of these cases is ever reported. Elder abuse includes:

Physical or sexual abuse—use of physical force that results in illness or injury; forced or unwanted sexual contact.

Emotional or psychological abuse—verbal or nonverbal behavior that causes mental pain.

Neglect—failure to provide essential medical care, hygiene, food, shelter and other basic necessities of life.

Financial exploitation—illegal, unauthorized use of a senior's resources, including theft, forgery and misuse of funds, or improper use of guardianship or power of attorney.

Seniors who are physically frail, isolated or have Alzheimer's disease or other memory loss are at the highest risk of elder abuse. But it can happen to seniors of every cultural background, socioeconomic status or gender. It happens in a senior's home, in a nursing home or other senior living environment. The abuser might be a stranger, but, sadly, is most likely to be a family member or other trusted person. According to the American Geriatrics Society, 90 percent of elder abuse is perpetrated by a family member. Other family members also are affected: Seniors lose billions of dollars each year to financial abuse and exploitation—costs that are often passed along to loved ones who must step in to cover their care.

The National Council on Aging says to be aware of red flags that could be signs a senior is being victimized:

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, burns.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities; a sudden change in alertness, or unusual depression; strained or tense relationships; frequent arguments between the caregiver and older adult.
  • Sudden changes in financial situation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, unusual weight loss.
  • Belittling, threats, or other uses of power and control by individuals.

How can families protect senior loved ones from elder abuse? Know the red flags above. Keep in close touch with elders. Visit often. When hiring home care, choose a reputable agency that performs background checks and supervises caregivers. Help loved ones with banking and finances, if appropriate.

If you think a senior is being abused

Many seniors who have been victimized hesitate to talk about it. They may feel ashamed. They may not want to get a relative in trouble. They may fear retribution from the abuser. And they may feel that the abuser is their only source of care. If you suspect an elder has been victimized, reassure them that it is not their fault—and report it:

  • Find the appropriate state, local or federal authority on the website of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).  
  • Contact your local Adult Protective Services agency. You can find the information here.
  • Visit the Eldercare Locator (call 1-800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov).

What if you suspect that a senior is being abused? Perhaps you don't know the person very well. You might be tempted to avoid getting involved or even thinking about such an unpleasant possibility. But by reporting your suspicions, you could make a huge difference in the life of a vulnerable elder. If your suspicions turn out to be incorrect, nothing is lost. The NCEA says this: "Most cases of elder abuse go undetected. Don't assume someone has already reported a suspicious situation. The agency receiving the report will ask what you observed, who was involved, and who they can contact to learn more." They add, "You do not need to prove that abuse is occurring; it is up to the professionals to investigate the suspicions."

A note about self-neglect

The NCEA also urges concerned people to report situations in which a senior is neglecting their own healthcare, nutrition or hygiene, or living in an unsafe environment (e.g., a house in disrepair, hoarding, leaving the stove on, utilities shut off). Quite often, this is the result of dementia, poor health, substance abuse or isolation. Contact one of the numbers above; the senior will be connected with support services.

What can we all do?

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day logo

The World Health Organization calls for increased awareness of elder abuse among the public and professionals, and increased mandated reporting of abuse. The American Geriatrics Society also recently called for raising awareness among emergency room personnel. Said Dr. Timothy Platts-Mills of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "It can be very difficult distinguishing whether a bruise is from a fall or physical abuse, or whether poor hygiene is a result of a patient asking to be left alone or the result of overt neglect on the part of a care provider. But those difficulties don't change the reality that elder abuse is common, takes a tremendous toll on its victims, and is frequently missed." Platts-Mills and his research team are creating a screening tool to help these professionals better identify seniors who are being victimized.

With our nation's rapidly growing senior population, it is sadly likely that this crime also will continue to grow. It takes all of us to protect our vulnerable seniors. Connect with the elders in your community, and advocate for improved senior support services. Doing so will raise the odds that all of us will be safer in our later years.

Learn More

Find more information about elder abuse on the websites of the National Council on Aging, the National Institute of Justice, the National Center on Elder Abuse and the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment.

Logo: USC Center on Elder Mistreatment.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.