There are many forms of abuse that humans can inflict on other humans. We see these kinds of abuse – and sometimes experience them ourselves by being on the receiving end – in action on a daily basis in the world around us.
While you and I may be strong enough, savvy enough, knowledgeable enough, and aware enough to recognize and prevent (or avoid or remove ourselves from) these manifestations of abuse, the most vulnerable people in our human family – children and the elderly – are often the most susceptible to and unable to protect themselves from these kinds of abuse.It is our responsibility and duty, as well as a tangible demonstration of our love and devotion, as caregivers and advocates of our elderly loved ones (and other elderly people as well as our own children and other children), then, to step up to the plate and be continually vigilant, diligent, and proactive in protecting the vulnerable among our human family from any form of abuse.
These forms of abuse can include, but are not limited to:
- Physical abuse – consists of inflicting physical pain or injury
- Emotional abuse – consists of verbal abuse, threats of harm, harassment, or intimidation
- Sexual abuse – consists of any kind of unwanted or forced sexual activity
- Financial exploitation – consists of financial scams, theft of money, misuse of money, misappropriation of money, withholding money
- Confinement – consists of using restraints or extreme isolation
- Passive neglect – consists of failure to provide care and the basic necessities of life, including, but not limited to, food, clothing, shelter, or medical care
- Intentional deprivation – consists of denying the administration of medication, medical care, shelter, food, therapeutic devices (such as oxygen or walkers), physical assistance, which increases the risk of physical, mental, or emotional harm—except in cases (such as at the end of life) when, as a competent adult, the person has expressed or legally indicated (through advanced directives and living wills) a desire to go without such care
- Abandonment – consists of simply abdicating any responsibility for care and leaving the person on their own to fend for themselves
There are some factors that make elderly people more vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse.
Social isolation and mental impairment (such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) are two such factors. Recent studies show that nearly 50% of elderly with dementia have experienced some form of abuse or neglect.
Physical aging of the body is another factor, as hearing loss increases, eyesight dims, mobility decreases, muscles atrophy, bones become brittle, and skin becomes as thin as paper, making our elders less independent and more dependent on other people, some of whom may or may not have their best interests at heart.
The statistics on elder abuse in the United States are not surprising on one hand, but in our role as caregivers, they should make us even more dedicated to preventing our own elderly loved ones from being part of these numbers.
While most estimates show that approximately 10% of people 60 or older have been victims of some sort of elder abuse ((with the estimated population of the United States in 2016 being 323,341,000, that percentage represents over 3 million people), the actual number may be as high as 5 million people each year.
Of the cases of elder abuse, only a little more than 7% are reported to authorities.
Financial exploitation is the most often that is reported to authorities among the types of abuse the elderly may experience (the elderly tend to be, perhaps due to fear of more harm and worse retribution, extremely reluctant and reticent about reporting other types of abuse to authorities).
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) estimates that the cost of financial exploitation to elders is about $2.9 billion a year.
While the majority of elder abuse occurs at the hand of scammers, paid caregivers (assisted living and nursing home staff), and family members, a recent United States study showed that 1 in 5 nursing home residents are the victims of verbal or physical abuse by other residents.
What do we as caregivers need to be aware of to determine whether our loved ones or other elderly people are the victims of elder abuse?
Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns are indications of physical mistreatment, neglect, or abuse.
Emotional abuse is characterized by an unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, sudden changes in alertness, or unusual depression, as well as strained and tense relationships with everyone, even with people who are close, dear, and loving friends and family.
Forms of verbal abuse – which is probably the most common kind of emotional abuse – include belittling, threats, intimidation, and other uses of power and control by the individuals who are committing the abuse.
Sudden changes in financial affairs (large cash withdrawals, unexplained credit card expenses, widely-fluctuating bank balances, etc.) are tell-tale signs of financial exploitation. However, elders, especially those with an online presence, can also be more susceptible to and victims of identity theft and they can also be more susceptible to credit/debit card theft.
The signs of neglect include bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss.
What do we do when we suspect or see signs elder abuse?
If an elderly person (our own or others) is in immediate, life-threatening danger, call 911.
If there are suspicions or obvious signs that our elderly loved ones are being abused, we should remove them as soon as possible from the abusive situation into a safe place and ensure they get the care – and comfort – they need.
In situations where there are suspicions or obvious signs that elders are being abused and they are not within the scope of our immediate ability to care for and make decisions for, we should contact a local Adult Protective Services office, Long-Term Care Ombudsman, or the police.
Preventing elder abuse and protecting all of our elders from abuse is both an individual and collective responsibility that each of us has. Too many people “don’t want to get involved,” but I urge each of us to rethink that position.
If it’s someone other than our elderly loved ones being abused, consider what we would want other people to do if they suspected or saw that our own loved ones were the victims of abuse.
What if we were the elders being abused? Wouldn’t we want someone to get involved on our behalf?
If we live long enough, we will all get to point of the other end of human vulnerability: old age. What we do now to help those who have already reached that stage of life may determine what kind of help, if any, we receive if we get there.
Think carefully about that. Always do good and always do the right thing, no matter what time or effort it takes. Lives of people who have lived, loved, and lost just as we live, love, and lose may be in the balance of our decisions.