The abuse of older adults includes any action or neglect that endangers the health or well-being of an older adult. Older person abuse is a growing concern because as the baby boomers are retiring and getting older, the population of older adults is increasing. Anyone can become vulnerable to older person abuse. More and more older adults are remaining in their homes longer or living with their adult children. This increases the risk of family abuse within the home, as spouses, partners and adult children are the most common perpetrators of abuse against senior men and women.
- 4% – 10% of older adults experience some form of abuse.
- 80% of abuse or neglect is hidden or undetected.
- Only 1 out of 5 abuse or neglect cases come to the attention of community agencies.
- Spouses and adult children are the most common perpetrators of family violence.
- The most common form of abuse is financial exploitation.
- Common assault is the most common type of abuse against seniors, followed by uttering threats and robbery.
- Senior women are more likely to be harmed by physical force than senior men.
- Men are just as likely to be victims of older person abuse as women.
Types and Signs of Abuse
Physical abuse is any violent act or rough treatment directed toward an older adult, and may include the inappropriate use of restraints. Signs of physical abuse may include:
- Unexplained injuries such as bruises, burns, swelling, cuts, infections, fractures, immobility, internal injuries, pain, restricted movement, rope marks, tenderness, ulcers, welts;
- Injuries in various stages of healing or untreated injuries;
- Injuries mismatched with medical history or no explanation of cause of injury;
- Seeing different physicians;
- Delay in seeking treatment;
- Gathering of injuries which resemble gripping or shaking.
The misuse of an adult’s medication and prescriptions, including withholding medication and over-medicating. Signs of medication abuse may include:
- Hyperactivity or depression;
- Lack of appropriate response to medication;
- Over sedation – reduced physical/mental activity, in the absence of disease or illness.
Any act that may diminish the older adult’s sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth; including social isolation, verbal assault, harassment, humiliation, or intimidation. Signs may include:
- Fear or isolation;
- Low self-esteem or guilt;
- Withdrawal, passivity or appears shamed;
- Excluded from family gatherings, not permitted to have friends visit, to go to church, denied access to grandchildren;
- Apathy and depression;
- Signs of anxiety;
- A reluctance to participate in decision-making.
Financial Abuse or Exploitation:
The misuse of an older adult’s funds and assets including: theft, fraud, misappropriation of property, or misuse of funds through a Power of Attorney, joint bank account, or coercion. Signs of financial abuse or exploitation may include:
- Unexplained discrepancy between income and standard of living;
- Documents being signed without basic understanding;
- Missing possessions;
- Unusual bank account activity by persons in a position of trust;
- Being overcharged by “con-artists” for home repairs, funerals, telemarketing;
- Illegal use of elderly person’s possessions/property/investments for profit/personal gain;
- Forced to sign over control or power of attorney;
- Forced to change will or sell house;
- No money for food or clothes;
- Inadequate living environment;
- Unable to afford social activities or travel.
Sexual abuse is a form of physical abuse. Sexual abuse is any sexual behaviour directed towards an older adult without their full knowledge and/or consent, such as sexual assault and sexual harassment. Signs of sexual abuse may include:
- Pain, bruising, lacerations, bleeding or abnormal discharge in genital area;
- Bloody or torn clothing;
- Difficulty walking or sitting.
There are two forms of neglect: active neglect and passive neglect.
The non-deliberate, non-malicious withholding of basic necessities and/or care because of lack of experience, information, or ability. Neglect may include but is not limited to abandonment or the denial of necessities of life such as adequate water, food, clothing, heat, and shelter. Signs of neglect (active OR passive) may include:
- Mal-nourishment, dehydration;
- Absence of aids such as glasses, dentures, hearing aid, prosthesis, walking aids;
- Lack of supervision or attention for long periods of time;
- Dirty or inappropriate clothing;
- Untreated medical conditions.
The deliberate withholding of basic necessities and/or care.
This occurs when an older person’s spiritual practices or traditions are denied or restricted, when spiritual beliefs are used to exploit them, or when others attack their beliefs. ** Signs of abuse can be mistaken as a part of growing older or look like other health conditions such as dementia, mental depression, anxiety, etc. Be sure to ask lots of questions and look for patterns.
Who are the victims?
Older victims of abuse often know the people who hurt them. Many victims live in their own homes or with relatives. Others live in assisted-living complexes, private care homes and long-term care facilities or nursing homes. Many older victims of abuse in the community are healthy, mentally competent individuals. Those victims who have mental or physical disabilities are especially vulnerable, but abuse can happen to any older person.
What are the effects?
Abuse is hard at any age, but older adults are more vulnerable as they have less physical strength and resilience. Abuse can cause major stress on an older person’s physical stress. Stress from abuse can trigger chest pain, angina, high blood pressure, stomach problems, or panic attacks. Physical injuries can also take longer to heal in an older person than a younger person.
Who are the abusers?
Family members cause most of the abuse of older adults. Abuse sometimes happens because a caregiver can no longer handle the stress of looking after the older person. Stress can become unmanageable when the caregiver is not equipped to provide care or has limited to no resources and personal support. In institutional settings like assisted-living complexes, abuse tends to take the form of neglect, poor personal care and disrespectful treatment. This often happens because staff members have poor training or are overworked.
How Can You Help an Older Adult who is Being Abused?
- Ask specific questions:
- How are you doing?
- Are you having trouble at home?
- Is someone hurting you?
- Can I help you?
- Do you feel isolated?
- Are you allowed to make decisions for yourself?
- Who makes decisions for you?
- Believe the person – do not deny or underestimate what is going on.
- Listen without judging – let them know you care and respect their decision making.
- Help them to understand what older adult abuse includes and why it happens.
- Help them to understand their rights.
- Show true concern for their physical and emotional safety.
- Let them know their right to make their own decisions.
- Encourage them to seek help from police services or counselling to cope with the effects of the abuse and self-esteem issues.
- Let them know what community resources are available to them.
- Talk to neighbors, friends, family, etc.