What is "elder abuse"?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines elder abuse as "a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person".
Elder abuse can occur in many forms such as physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, emotional, financial and material abuse and abandonment; neglect and exploitation. Physical abuse can range from minor bruises and scratches to head injuries and broken bones. Physical injuries can be long-lasting and may impede or prevent recuperation of already existing health issues or may result in permanent damage or death. Psychological, emotional and sexual abuse can lead to mental distress including depression and anxiety.
Where and why does the abuse occur?
Elder abuse can occur in a senior's own home, in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, long-term care or rehabilitation centers, hospitals or other community settings. Vulnerable seniors are often financially, physically, verbally, emotionally and sexually abused if they do not have the awareness or capacity to defend themselves. Others are financially exploited particularly when they have a cognitive incapacity. Still, many suffer abandonment and neglect after the death of a spouse, when their adult children move away or if they suffer some other loss and there is no one else able, available or want to care for them.
Interestingly, seniors may also abuse other seniors. The practice of intentionally harming and humiliating others does not stop once an individual reaches the age of majority or a certain chronological age. Bullying among the elder population exists and is similar to behavior observed on the playground and in the schoolhouse. For example, the forming of cliques at the exclusion of others, ridiculing those who are of a different gender, race, marital status, religion, orientation, social standing, educational or economic background occurs in senior communities. Gossip, rumor mills, offensive jokes and gestures, verbal insults and physical attacks may take place at outings or other social events in a senior center or residential facility.
Who is affected?
One statistic shows that 1 in 10 senior citizens age 60 years or older are victims of abuse or are in abusive environments. The abuse is perpetuated by a senior citizen's spouse, children or other family members as well as staff and even other residents where an elder may live or is receiving treatment and care for health or other reasons. If an elderly person requires long-term care, has a disability, dementia or Alzheimer's, the likelihood of abuse increases. Additional risk factors include having poor or impaired physical and/or health, loss of physical or mental faculties, loss of or having no family members or other social support.
What can be done to prevent elder abuse?
It is estimated that nearly 5 million citizens of the elderly population are abused each year. Public awareness may help to lower and, hopefully, eliminate the number of individuals who are abused.
Staff in care facilities should be properly and professionally trained to screen and identify potential victims and perpetrators of elder abuse. Facilities should ensure appropriate policies are in place concerning elder abuse prevention that are in the best interests of its residents and should avoid overworking staff as that increases stress that can lead to frustration and subsequently abuse. Concerning potential bullying among residents in a senior living facility, the staff and administration should create and maintain a nurturing environment where it is understood that all are respected, welcomed and included and should ensure that each individual is aware of these expectations. Additionally, having an adequate number of staff in programs or services responsible for regularly monitoring the welfare of the elder population in health care facilities is imperative.
The establishment and improvement for standards of care and abuse interventions in senior living facilities as well as severe consequences for perpetrators of elder abuse is of vital importance at a local, state and federal level. Furthermore, families should communicate among its members and arrange or seek assistance from organizations that provide respite care or stress management classes for caregivers if a senior is still residing or receiving care in the home. Such organizations should be readily available and accessible with staff and necessary funding in order to provide support and resources to any and all caregivers.
Education at the school level can help children, teenagers and young adults have a proper and realistic view of elders in the community. Teaching about elder abuse and how to recognize the signs of elder bullying can change attitudes and eliminate stereotypes that many have toward the elder population.
If you are, or know of, a senior citizen who is in immediate or life-threatening danger, stop reading and call 911.
If you suspect that an older adult or senior citizen is being mistreated, exploited or abused, please contact your local Adult Protective Services office or call the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 | Open Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (EST).