Identifying & Thwarting Elder Abuse

ELDER ABUSE: AN EPIDEMIC

We have an epidemic in this country. It is not cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or influenza. The epidemic we are facing is elder abuse, with the average number of cases totaling over two million each year. Since many instances of abuse are not reported, the actual number is much higher.

Though rampant, elder abuse is ignored by our youth-oriented culture. Due to a lack of coverage by the celebrity-crazed media, seniors and their families have little or no exposure to this disturbing issue until it affects them – and by that time, it may be too late to rectify an abusive situation. As we must do when combating any such problem, we first need to acknowledge that elder abuse exists. Then, we need to define specific types of abuse, recognize warning signs and provide solutions.

Elder abuse is defined as intentional actions that cause harm or create a serious risk of harm. In general, it falls into four categories:

1. Physical abuse, which includes physical or sexual assault, unreasonable physical constraint, deprivation of food or water, or inappropriate use of medication
2. Emotional/psychological abuse, which includes verbal assaults, threats or intimidation, confinement, or subjecting a person to fear or serious emotional distress
3. Neglect, which deprives a person of medical care, clothing and shelter, food or medication, or protection from health and safety hazards (neglect can also include self-neglect when a senior is unable to properly care for him or herself)
4. Financial abuse, which consists of illegal or unauthorized use of a person’s property, money or other valuables; changing a person’s will to name the abuser as an heir; or obtaining a power of attorney in order to swindle the senior out of money or other assets. Identity theft is also considered financial abuse. Seniors lose almost $3 billion dollars a year to financial exploitation.

Seniors at risk for elder abuse include those:

• in their mid to late seventies and older
• with mental or physical disabilities
• who live alone and do not have family members or caretakers to supervise their activities
• who have no family or friends and, thus, are susceptible to a predator who will use this loneliness to build trust

The perpetrator of abuse can be anyone in a position of control or authority, such as a spouse, relative, caregiver, neighbor, or healthcare worker. In reported elder abuse cases, 66% of the culprits were spouses or adult children.  Others who may prey upon the elderly consist of disreputable contractors, telemarketers, charities, attorneys, financial planners and financial institutions. Unsolicited mail and Internet requests targeting seniors also pose a serious problem.

Warning signs or symptoms of abuse may include the following:

• Neglect/physical abuse – poor hygiene, bruises or injuries, disorientation, filthy living conditions, bruising of the genitals, sexually transmitted diseases
• Emotional abuse – hesitant, withdrawn or depressed demeanor
• Financial abuse – unusual financial activity as reflected in bank, credit card and investment statements, collection notices or changes in spending patterns

Diligent monitoring and vigilance is the key to preventing elderly abuse. If a trusted family member or friend is not available, geriatric social workers, professional bill payers, fiduciaries or accountants can monitor the senior’s physical and financial situation.  Certain individuals are mandated to report elder abuse: medical professionals, clergy, healthcare workers, and anyone who assumes responsibility for the care or custody of an elderly person. However, it is critical that anybody who suspects or witnesses abuse report it immediately. An elder’s assets, health or life may depend upon intervention.

Contact information for reporting abuse:

• Contra Costa County Adult Protective Services: 877-839-4347
• Local police department
• Ombudsman Program – handles abuse in nursing homes, residential homes or long-term care facilities: 925-685-2070
• California Department of Aging Ombudsman Crisis Line: 800-231-4024