Understanding Elder Abuse: Types, Signs, and Prevention

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Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is a pervasive issue impacting millions of older Americans each year, often leading to significant physical, emotional, and financial harm. It affects individuals across all backgrounds.

“Sadly, the majority of elder abuse cases go unreported,” said former Department of Justice Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in a release announcing fifth annual report to Congress on the Justice Department’s efforts to combat elder abuse and fraud.

Estimates suggest only one in 23 cases is brought to light, according to Age in Place.

Types of Elder Abuse

Elder abuse can take many forms:

1. Physical Abuse: Inflicting bodily harm through actions like hitting or restraining.

2. Emotional Abuse: Verbal assaults, threats, and isolation.

3. Neglect: Failure to provide essential care.

4. Abandonment: Deserting an older adult in need of care.

5. Sexual Abuse: Nonconsensual sexual contact.

6. Financial Abuse: Misuse or theft of an elder’s money or assets.

Our elders deserve to live safe, healthy, happy lives. As family members, neighbors, loved ones, and as a society, we should not tolerate any form of elder abuse.

Signs of Elder Abuse

The American Psychological Association suggests the following signs could indicate elder abuse:

  • Unexplained injuries like bruises, burns, cuts, or scars
  • Poor hygiene, lack of food or water, and inadequate clothing
  • Missing medical aids such as glasses, walkers, hearing aids, or medications
  • Sunken eyes or unexplained weight loss
  • Untreated bedsores
  • Casual or dismissive comments about injuries
  • Excessive fearfulness or suspicion
  • Loss of interest in social interactions
  • Sudden behavioral changes
  • Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
  • STDs or vaginal infections
  • Neglect despite having enough financial resources
  • Large or unusual bank withdrawals or ATM activities

These signs could result from medications or disease. However, if you spot them in your loved one, strongly consider investigating to be sure of the cause.

Key Elder Abuse Statistics

The below data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other top research organizations can help protect individuals and their loved ones from elder abuse:

  • Home Abuse: About 10% of Americans aged 60 and older living at home face abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
  • Care Facility Abuse: Nearly 16% of nursing home residents report being abused.
  • Health Citations: In 2023, U.S. nursing homes received 94,499 health citations; 8.1% (7,654) involved abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
  • Fines: Nursing homes were fined $153 million in 2023 for various health violations, averaging $10,000 per facility.
  • Common Abuse Types: In care facilities, physical abuse is most common, followed by neglect and psychological abuse.
  • Dementia Vulnerability: Up to 50% of older adults with dementia experience abuse.

Legal Recourse

Originally termed “granny battering” in the British press, elder abuse was initially considered a private matter. Over time, elder abuse has gained recognition as a social, health, and criminal issue as state laws were enacted and public awareness increased.

Elder mistreatment investigations assumed the Child Protective Services model, shifting from private family matters to prosecutable offenses. Laws protecting elders have been slowly enacted, with forensic and medical evidence playing a critical role in interventions.

Today, if an elder suffers harm in a nursing home or care facility, the business owners (usually a corporation) and the abusers can be sued. To win the case, the claimant’s attorney must prove that the facility or caregiver failed to provide safe care and that this failure caused harm to the elder.

As research expands globally, varying definitions and descriptions of elder abuse continue to evolve, leading to better protection and intervention strategies.

The State of Elder Abuse Research

While elder abuse is not new, its study and legal recourse are relatively recent, first gaining attention in the 1970s.

Despite growing research efforts, elder abuse remains understudied compared to child abuse and intimate partner violence, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). Enhanced research is essential to understand the scope of the problem, identify needs, and develop effective prevention, detection, treatment, and remediation strategies.

Tips for Preventing and Addressing Elder Abuse

We can all help prevent violence against older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following prevention tips:

  • Listen and Support: Understand their challenges by listening to them.
  • Educate: Learn and teach others how to recognize and report abuse.
  • Recognize Signs: Know the difference between abuse signs and normal aging.
  • Stay Connected: Check in on older adults with few friends or family.
  • Address Substance Issues: Help caregivers or older adults with drug or alcohol problems get support.
  • Support Caregivers: Offer help to overburdened caregivers through friends, family, local relief care groups, adult day care programs, or counseling.

Resources for Preventing and Addressing Elder Abuse

Consider the following resources to protect yourself or a loved one from elder abuse.

Reporting Resources

If you suspect elder abuse, it’s crucial to report it to authorities or adult protective services. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

For cases in which danger is not imminent, report elder abuse to your local Adult Protective Services.

If you suspect a nursing home, assisted living facility, or board and care facility of elder abuse, contact your state licensing agency.

Other Support Resources

Support for both victims and caregivers is available through various organizations and hotlines: