WHAT IS ELDER ABUSE?
Elder abuse occurs when someone knowingly or unknowingly causes harm or a risk of harm to an older adult. Elder abuse can take several forms, including:
-Physical abuse. Physical abuse is the use of physical force, such as hitting, pushing, shaking or burning, with the intention of causing pain or injury.
-Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse involves any nonconsensual sexual contact, such as inappropriate touching or rape.
-Emotional abuse. Psychological or emotional abuse is the use of tactics, such as harassment, insults, intimidation or threats, that cause mental or emotional anguish.
-Financial abuse. Financial abuse involves improperly using an older person’s resources for the benefit of another person, for example, by stealing, trickery or inappropriate use of government checks. Inappropriate use of financial power of attorney is another common example.
-Neglect. Neglect occurs when a caregiver refuses or fails to provide the level of care necessary to avoid physical or mental harm. Examples include inadequate attention to food, water, shelter and personal hygiene.
The abuser can be a family member â€” an adult child or a spouse. In institutions, such as nursing homes or group homes, professional caregivers may be abusers.
People age 80 and older, especially women, are at a greater risk of experiencing elder abuse. Older adults who are dependent on others for basic care are particularly vulnerable to elder abuse.
HOW CAN I SPOT ELDER ABUSE?
If you’re concerned an older adult you know is being abused, knowing the signs and symptoms of abuse can help you determine if a problem exists. These signs and symptoms may include:
-Physical injury. Examples of questionable injuries include bruises, cuts, or burns, and broken bones or sprains that can’t be explained. Other signs of potential problems include sudden changes in behavior, comments about being battered or the refusal of the caregiver to allow you to visit the older person alone.
-Lack of physical care. Indications of substandard physical care include dehydration, malnourishment, weight loss and poor hygiene. Bed sores, soiled bedding, and comments about being mistreated also may indicate a problem. Lack of physical care can happen to older adults living in their homes, as well as in institutional care settings, such as a nursing home.
-Unusual behaviors. Changes in an older person’s behavior or emotional state may suggest a problem. Examples include agitation, withdrawal, fear or anxiety, apathy, or reports of being treated improperly.
-Unaccounted for finances. Financial problems may include missing money or valuables, unexplained financial transactions, unpaid bills despite available funds and sudden transfer of assets. Another sign may be older adults who are controlling their finances but don’t allow relatives to see their records.
ACTIONS TO TAKE IF YOU SUSPECT ELDER ABUSE
It’s important for you to speak up about suspected elder abuse. There are agencies that can help. You must remember that a problem can’t be remedied until it’s reported.
ACTIONS TO TAKE IF YOU SUSPECT ELDER ABUSE AT HOME
Call the police if you suspect an older adult is in imminent danger. If you’re not aware of immediate danger, but you suspect an older adult is being abused, check with welfare and social service agencies. Most cities and counties, according to state law, will investigate and protect vulnerable adults from elder abuse.
Some type of adult protective services agency, a division of human service agencies in most states, is typically responsible for investigating reports of domestic elder abuse and providing families with help and guidance. Other professionals who may be able to help include doctors, nurses, police officers, lawyers and social workers.
ACTIONS TO TAKE IF YOU SUSPECT ELDER ABUSE IN A NURSING HOME
If you suspect elder abuse in an institutional setting, such as a nursing home, report concerns to your state long term care ombudsman. Each state has a long term care ombudsman to investigate and address nursing home complaints. In Pennsylvania, the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) are the local representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. There are 52 such offices, serving all 67 counties. They are staffed with aging care managers skilled in such areas as geriatrics, social work, and community resources. If you are aware of the abuse or neglect of an older person, get in touch with your county’s AAA. They will take your call 24 hours a day and will begin an investigation within 72 hours. Any person who believes that an older adult is being abused, neglected, exploited or abandoned may file a report with any Area Agency on Aging or call the statewide elder abuse hotline at 1-800-490-8505. Abuse reports can be made on behalf of an older adult whether the person lives in the community or in a care facility such as a nursing home, personal care home, hospital, etc.
Reporters may remain anonymous. Reporters have legal protection from retaliation, discrimination and civil or criminal prosecution.
The Web site for the National Center on Elder Abuse (http://www.elderabusecenter.org) also maintains a list of phone numbers, by state, that you can call for assistance if you suspect domestic or institutional elder abuse.
SOURCES: The Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 1998-2007;
Pennsylvania Department on Aging; The National Center for Elder Abuse.
Thomas P. Cummings, Esq.
Dougherty, Leventhal & Price, LLP