Protecting Parents from Elder Abuse

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In the year before the pandemic began, about one in ten older adults in the United States experienced elder abuse. A study found that one in five older adults experienced abuse during the pandemic. Based on calls to an elder abuse hotline, another study found that pandemic lockdowns may have reduced the opportunity to report abuse. At the same time, the study found that instances of reported abuse were more severe during the pandemic.

Pandemic restrictions have eased, but it is too soon to know whether rates of elder abuse will decline. A recent study nevertheless suggests that elder abuse is a hidden epidemic. Because many victims are not in a position to report abuse, it is important for the children of aging parents to be aware of warning signs that may signal a need for intervention.

What Is Elder Abuse?

The CDC defines elder abuse as “an intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.” Although strangers can victimize seniors through schemes to steal their money, many individuals are positioned to commit elder abuse because they are in a position of trust. They include caregivers, residential facility staff members, financial advisers, and relatives.

Physical and sexual abuse occurs when an older adult is subjected to physical violence or unwanted sexual contact. Physical abuse may include striking, slapping, shaking, or any other deliberate act that causes pain or injury. The unauthorized use of restraints (such as tying a person who suffers from dementia to her bed) and the unnecessary use of medication to keep a senior sedated are additional examples of physical abuse.

Emotional abuse involves the infliction of emotional pain, anguish, fear, or distress through insults, ridicule, threats, intimidation, or harassment. Isolating and refusing to allow interaction with an older adult is another form of emotional abuse.

Financial abuse occurs when a person who has access to an older adult’s bank accounts, credit cards, or other financial resources misappropriates money or property. Financial abuse can be perpetrated by swindlers and telephone scammers who pretend to befriend the victim, or by trusted friends and family members. Family members are particularly likely to steal from an older adult who suffers from dementia or a disability that prevents her from detecting or preventing the theft.

Neglect occurs when a caregiver who is responsible for an older adult fails to protect that person’s health and safety. Neglect includes failing to assure that older adults are provided with nutritional meals and sufficient water, ignoring the adult’s medical needs, withholding necessary medication, and being inattentive to the adult’s hygiene. Abandonment by those who have responsibility for an older adult is another form of neglect.

Detection and Prevention of Elder Abuse

Physical abuse may be evidenced by unexplained bruising, wounds, or other physical injuries. When a parent attempts to dismiss an injury as unimportant or caused by an unlikely accident, adult children should probe further. Parents may be reluctant to identify an abuser because they fear retaliation. It is important to set the victim’s mind at ease and to assure her that she will be protected from continuing abuse if she identifies the source of her injuries.

Physical abuse should be reported to the police. While adult children may be reluctant to report a relative, the abuse is only likely to continue if the abuser faces no consequence for violent actions. If the abuse occurred in a nursing home or other business that has a duty to care for the parent, the business should also be reported to appropriate regulatory authorities. It may be necessary to move the parent to a different facility if the business is unresponsive to complaints. Adult children may need to speak to a lawyer about breaking a lease if it is dangerous for a parent to remain in a residential care facility.

Signs of emotional abuse are primarily behavioral. A parent who withdraws from contact with others, who no longer finds joy in his favorite pastimes, or who displays a fearful expression when certain people enter the room might be reacting to an abusive environment. Parents may feel that they should be able to endure emotional abuse and might be ashamed of their fear of confronting the abuser. Having a conversation in a coffee shop or some other location where the parent feels at ease might motivate the parent to be candid about emotional abuse. If contact between the abuser and the parent cannot be terminated, it may be necessary to move the parent to a safer environment.

Adult children can protect their parents from financial abuse by looking for evidence of financial distress. If a parent seems to be accumulating substantial credit card debt or is failing to make important payments, children should investigate the source of the problem. It may be necessary to seek legal advice if a person who holds a power of attorney or has other authorized access to a parent’s finances is enriching himself at the parent’s expense.

Neglect should never be tolerated. If an institutional abuser seems indifferent to the parent’s welfare, the institution should be reported to regulatory authorities. The National Center on Elder Abuse website is a good starting place to find resources, including links to adult protective services agencies, contact information for the Long-Term Care Ombudsman in every state, and the federal Eldercare Locator.


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