Elder abuse is not as widely recognized as child abuse or domestic violence, but it's a serious problem that deserves attention as our population grows older.
Why hasn't it been talked about more? One reason, says Sharon Ostwald, Ph.D., director of the University of Texas Center on Aging, is that fewer than 10 percent of elder abuse cases get reported- because victims are "often protective of the spouse, family member or other person who is abusing them." Many older people also feel helpless and unable to change their situation and, in some cases, they might actually be prevented from discussing a problem with someone who could provide help.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse can be physical, emotional, financial and sexual. It can involve neglect or self-neglect. It occurs equally in men and women. The abuser is often, but not always, the older person's caregiver. It could be an adult child, spouse or another relative such as a sibling or grandchild or it could be a boarder in the home, an aide or an employee of a nursing home or other facility.
Did you notice the bruise right here on Mom's hand?
However, it rarely happens because a caregiver is stressed out or resentful of how much care an elder needs. In reality, experts say, it's more likely to be connected to a caregiver's emotional and financial dependence on the older person or to problems such as alcoholism or legal difficulties.
Here are some things to look for-and ask about-if you suspect that an elderly relative is being abused. Be aware that some signs suggest abuse, but that no one sign by itself is proof of it.
Warning signs of physical abuse
* An untreated injury or an injury that seems inconsistent with the explanation of its cause.
* Frequent visits to the hospital.
* Doctor shopping.
Try to determine whether the older person is afraid of anyone either at home or in a facility, or whether she or he might have been hit or slapped by anyone.
Signs of emotional abuse
* Hesitation to talk openly.
* Fear, anxiety or withdrawal.
* Contradictory statements or unlikely stories.
Try to determine whether the older person feels that he or she is being treated like a child, humiliated or threatened with punishment. Find out what usually happens when the older person and his or her caregiver have a disagreement.
Signs of financial abuse
* Personal belongings and/or credit cards missing.
* Unusual bank account activity.
* Checks made out to cash.
* The appearance of a new will at a time when an elder seems unable to write one.
It's not easy to differentiate between financial abuse and a person's desire to give money or other possessions to a caregiver or family member. You will want to find out if the older person was forced to sign a power of attorney or other document and generally how aware the elder is of his or her current financial status.
Signs of neglect and self-neglect
* Unsanitary or unsafe living conditions.
* Poor personal hygiene or inappropriate dress.
* Being over-medicated or under-medicated.
Try to determine whether the problem is the result of active neglect (the intentional failure to provide care) or passive neglect (failure to provide care because of ignorance or the lack of skill).
-Adapted from The University of Texas Lifetime Health Letter
Copyright Work and Family Life Feb 2006