As many as 5 million older adults are abused every year, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and yet that abuse remains significantly underreported. Elder abuse often originates with someone in a position of trust, including family members and caregivers. Here are five warning signs to watch out for.
Look for burns, abrasions, pressure marks and bruises. Does your loved one have a history of sprains, dislocations or even broken bones? Sudden hair or tooth loss can also indicate abuse. Beware of odd explanations such as “She ran into a wall.” Does a caregiver or family member hover, not allowing you to visit alone? Is your loved one taken to many different medical facilities for treatment? All are red flags.
If an older adult needs help due to cognitive or physical impairments, check for dirty clothes, soiled diapers, bedsores and unusual weight loss. Is their living environment neat and clean, or has it deteriorated? Are medical aids such as hearing aids, canes and glasses clean and available, or nowhere to be found? The neglect may be intentional, or it could be passive as the result of an untrained or overly burdened caretaker.
Verbal or emotional abuse
Does your loved one seem withdrawn, or exhibit odd behavior like biting or rocking? Are there signs of fear, stress or tension around the caretaker? Does the caretaker snap or yell at the older adult? Is there forced isolation of the older adult by a member of the family or a caretaker? Emotional abuse can be tricky to spot, because it ranges from an insult to an outright verbal attack, and the older adult is often unable to fight back or even recognize the problem. A caregiver may say, “I can’t wait until you die so I get my life back!” or curse. The abuser may also isolate the older adult, so no one knows what is happening.
Age is no armor against a sexual predator, who may see an older adult as easy prey. Look for bruises around breasts or in the genital area, venereal disease, and vaginal or rectal bleeding. Your loved one may have difficulty walking or standing, and exhibit depression or withdrawal. Be suspicious if the caregiver acts flirty or seems to touch the older adult excessively or intimately when it is not warranted.
Are there unpaid bills piling up? Has money “disappeared”? Does a caregiver suddenly have an unexplained purchase that seems beyond their means, such as a new car, cell phone or clothing? Does a caregiver take money to make a purchase that never arrives? Has someone new been added to bank accounts or credit cards? Is credit card use increasing? Are cash withdrawals becoming more frequent? Family members and caregivers have the greatest access to older adults’ accounts and are often in the position of greatest trust to steal from seniors.
If you suspect severe elder abuse, call 911 to report immediate, life-threatening danger. Otherwise, report the abuse to a local adult protective services agency, the police or a long-term care ombudsman. Find a local resource at the National Center on Elder Abuse.