The Serious Challenge of Elder Abuse

Parents, grandparents and other older loved ones often play big roles in our lives and who we become. Role changes are often so gradual that we don’t notice until we’ve become their caretakers, but with that job comes great responsibility. Our elderly loved ones need not just our care but also our protection against potential abuse.

“Elder abuse” is an umbrella term that includes psychological, physical, verbal, sexual and financial abuse, as well as neglect. About 10 percent of seniors have experienced elder abuse, and the rate is even higher for those with dementia. Every year, thousands of vulnerable seniors are abused or neglected nationwide.

“We can all do better,” says Susan Houston, VP of Older Adult Services at the nonprofit Peninsula Family Service. “We can and we should take steps to educate the public and stop it.”

70 Strong, a free referral, website and concierge service, offers resources to educate the community and aid victims and their loved ones looking for answers. A search on 70 Strong’s directory turns up a useful list of services including crisis services, Ombudsman Services of San Mateo County, caregiver support, dementia services and more. 70 Strong is an initiative of Sequoia Healthcare District in partnership with Peninsula Family Service.

Know Abuse. Report Abuse

Types of Elder Abuse

Physical abuse includes any actions that cause bodily harm, including slapping, pushing, hitting, punching or kicking. Psychological or emotional abuse includes yelling, threatening or verbal abuse. Sexual abuse occurs when a caretaker or other person forces a senior to be involved in sexual activities regardless of consent. Financial abuse can include scams, con artists, Medicare fraud and other abuse designed to defraud or steal from an older person.

Seniors can be neglected, too. Neglect occurs when a caregiver fails to meet the senior’s needs appropriately or abandons the person.

Risk Factors

Elder abuse can affect anyone, regardless of sex, race, religion or ethnic background, and the problem often goes unreported. A senior may be at a greater risk of abuse if she or he has:

  • Few or no local friends or family members
  • Disabilities
  • Memory or cognitive problems
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s

Abuse is most common with those who are vulnerable, frail or otherwise heavily dependent on other people for normal day-to-day activities, such as dressing, eating or medicating. The risk is highest in long-term care facilities, nursing homes and memory care facilities, according to the World Health Organization.

The Link Between Dementia and Elder Abuse

“People with dementia are especially in need of safeguards that can protect them from potentially abusive situations,” says Susan Houston.

More than 5 million Americans are currently struggling with Alzheimer’s, but as the country’s population ages, the number of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will also increase. Some estimate that nearly 8 million people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by 2030, and the number will more than double by 2050.

Dementia refers to cognitive decline that is severe enough to interfere with normal daily activities, and Alzheimer’s is one common form of dementia. People with dementia or Alzheimer’s are uniquely vulnerable to abuse. As many as 47 percent of dementia patients suffer abuse, and one study showed that up to 60 percent of caregivers have been at least verbally abusive to the person in their care. Another 10 percent were physically abusive.

People with dementia are targeted because they are not always reliable witnesses. In the early stages of the disease, reasoning skills and communication can be affected. Sufferers also frequently struggle with judgment and memory. They may not understand the abuse or know how to explain to someone who can help. Making matters worse, there is a stigma surrounding dementia patients, and caregivers are simply uncomfortable interacting with them.

Signs of Abuse

Abuse and neglect often fly under the radar. The abuser keeps his or her actions concealed while the abused might not be able to frame or verbalize his or her experiences. You can spot symptoms of abuse, however, when you visit your loved one. Common signs of abuse include:

  • Withdrawal
  • Unexplained bruises or marks
  • Bedsores
  • Symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Poor grooming or hygiene
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Agitation or aggressiveness
  • Unexplainable large withdrawals of funds from someone’s bank account

Older adults who have eroded or weak family bonds, those with families fighting over their inheritance or those without close family are both more likely to suffer from abuse and less likely to have that abuse identified.

Getting Help

Abuse victims might be too embarrassed, ashamed, frightened or even confused to report the abuse, but abusers will not stop on their own. If someone you know is being abused in any way, help is available. Taking steps to prevent or stop abuse can help your loved one live a happier, healthier life. You might need to replace hired caregivers, move your loved one from an abusive environment or restrict certain family members from visiting without supervision.

Authorities can also intervene. The local number for elder abuse is 650.573.3950. In emergency situations, call 911.

In less critical situations, you can reach out to a variety of community resources to get the help you need. 70 Strong offers comprehensive information about senior support services, including home health care, caregiver services, counseling, crisis support, dementia care and in-home assistance and dementia care and support services for caregivers.

Susan Houston adds, “We can help you identify risk factors, locate resources and get the help you and your loved ones need. Contact 70 Strong Navigators at 650.780.7547 to learn more.”