Growing is the natural course of life, but elder abuse isn’t part of that natural course, and neither is any kind of abuse. We, and every other living creature, are brought into existence and allowed a certain life span. We learn and explore and as the years pass we grow up, we bring more of our kind to the planet, we contribute to the civilization with our good and our bad, and sometimes we contribute by merely just being there. Time steals from our health and mental capacities as much as it gives us, and with fewer years left in our life expectancy, we are not usually as strong or capable as we once were. It’s not something anyone likes to talk about, but we are all bound to grow old. The elders are not a separate part of our community; they are our loving grandparents, the sweet quiet lady next door, us in a few decades. In the following we will explore the different aspects of coping with old age and the prevention of elder abuse and exploitation.
What is Senescence?
Senescence is derived from the Latin word “senescere” which means “to grow old.” It’s the process in which the bodily functions of any complex life-form gradually deteriorate. In other words, it refers to biological aging, that which eventually leads to death.
Like machines, our bodies have expiry dates. They get weary with the constant use (and misuse) and tend to function less efficiently before they cease to work at all. Old age leaves the body more susceptible to disease. The once very powerful immunity system can hardly fight the attacks of illness anymore, nor can the body self-heal from minor injuries or fractures.
Because of the reasons we just mentioned, most elders are significantly less capable than their younger years. The incapability varies in degrees according to how old a person is and how healthy he was at leading his life. Most elders have at least one chronic condition, if not more. These conditions include heart diseases, arthritis, and uncontrolled hypertension, among many others. One of the prices man is definitely bound to pay with old age is the diminished eyesight and impaired hearing. Falls can also have a fatal effect on the elderly and are actually considered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death and injury among senior citizens.
It is thus clear that at a certain stage, an elder would need someone to either take care of them, or at least look after them from afar, making sure they will be there in case of any sort of emergency. The caregiver could be the elder’s family, or it could be an institute that specifically cares for the elderly. And because caregivers are just people, they come as people come: there are those who are good, those who are careless, those who are kind, those who are inefficient, and of course those who are abusive. Let us put our hand on what the broad concept of elder abuse means.
Elder abuse is any sort of action, out of intent or carelessness, that jeopardizes the physical, mental, or emotional health or well-being of an elder who is too vulnerable to stand up for himself. The concept also encompasses financial exploitation and self-neglect. Due to the frailty and occasional (or constant) forgetfulness an elder might be going through, he could not be able to stop or report the abuse even when the case is severe. Obviously, there are various types of elder abuse and they better clarify what is elder abuse really like, but let us first introduce what self-neglect is.
With old age, an individual is faced with many challenges. Some of these challenges require external help and can significantly compromise the elder’s privacy or personal space. For that, some of the elderly may refrain from asking for help, preferring the serious deterioration of the quality of life to the indignity of being taken care of. In this particular case, an elder might be incapable of providing for him/herself or might not have the ability to understand the consequences of certain life situations. They might also be aggressive to outsiders or family members offering help. Eventually, if the elder cannot really afford independency, his refusal of help might lead to serious harm or endanger his life.
The Different Types of Elder Abuse
There are different shapes and types of elder abuse. There is the intentional mistreatment and then there is the neglect and abandonment. Take a look at the following list.
- Emotional Abuse:
Emotional abuse is any act that can cause psychological pain or distress to the elder, including threats, rejection, insults, belittlement, yelling, and mockery.
- Physical Abuse:
Physical abuse is any use of physical violence to harm or threaten the elder. It could include hitting and slapping and could go as far as cigarette burns.
- Sexual Abuse:
Sexual abuse, like in all other cases, refers to any sexual contact that is either forced or threatened or that that is practiced with an individual unable to grant consent.
- Financial Exploitation:
Financial exploitation includes theft or misuse of authority given over the elder’s money or properties. It also includes manipulating the elder into giving up their money or properties or emotionally blackmailing them into financing the abusive caregiver’s expenses.
Neglect is the failure of the caregiver to attend to the elder’s needs or provide them with emotional and physical support. Neglect could be out of indifference, carelessness, or the lack of time.
Abandonment is when the main caregiver completely gives up providing for an elder who is incapable of providing for himself. It includes temporary abandonment, where the caregivers travels away for a job or a journey and leaves the elder unattended, and desertion, where the caregiver discards any duty of care towards the elder, leaving him in the streets or in his own home with no external assistance.
The previous types might make a strong statement as to what is elder abuse, but they don’t explain the reasons behind the mistreatments or the signs that we must watch out for. Next, let us study the signs of elder abuse and what we are supposed to do if we suspect the mistreatment of an elder.
Signs of Elder Abuse
It is difficult to detect what happens behind closed doors, especially if the subject of your concern has medical conditions that might compromise his communication or confuse his perception. But here are a few signs of elder abuse that should require your immediate intervention.
- If your senior relative/neighbor is not as talkative and energetic as he used to be, if you’re used to seeing him each morning or in the church each Sunday and he suddenly hardly shows up, make sure you check up on them and have a little conversation!
- If the elder looks intimidated or broken down, or if you can see any inexplicable bruises or signs of self-neglect, you might then want to investigate if the primary caregiver is doing a good job or not.
- Abusers like to isolate and distance their victims. If your friendly neighbor no longer picks up the phone and whenever you visit their caregiver tells you they are sleep, demand that you meet or speak with them immediately. Make sure you can have a conversation alone without the caregiver’s presence in the room.
- Finally, always try to keep a channel of conversation with your older neighbor or with your relative in a nursing home. If you can notice anxiety or depression, this might not be a good environment for the elder.
Notice that some medical conditions do cause confusion and paranoia. If your elder relative complains of abuse or exploitation, don’t disregard their complaints and do your little investigations. Ask the other residents of the home if they’re happy, or communicate with younger family members regarding how grandma is doing.
It is important to be tolerant and understanding and to give your elder friend or family a safe space to confide into you. Here are a few caregivers you need to keep an eye on because they’re more likely to be abusive than others.
- Individuals with anger issues, depression, or other psychological problems that can affect their control of their state of mind can unintentionally become abusers. Full-time care of an elder can cause some pressure and exhaustion; that can push a slightly troubled person into an abusive behavior.
- Individuals with substance abuse problems are more likely to lose their temper and yell, insult, or push away an elder. They can also simply forget to feed them, bathe them, or give them their medications.
- Individuals with a previous incidence of abuse, of children, family, or pets, will probably also abuse the elder.
- External caregivers that are totally dependent on the elder for financing their life are more likely to exploit him for money.
If your friend, parent, or spouse is a primary caregiver of an elder, please be understanding that such a job can take a toll on them. Try to get them to join a support group for caregivers and offer to help them when they seem too tired. If their spirits are high and they are positive about life, they are far less likely to be abusive.
Reporting Elder Abuse
If you notice any of the previously mentioned signs or any other suspicious behavior of the elder or their caregiver, it is important to step in. Your first approach should be to try to communicate with the elder. There is always a possibility of misunderstanding so make sure your report won’t end up offending the elder rather than helping him. If you are unable of reaching him or do have a conversation that leaves you even more suspicious, you must contact the police immediately. Also search online for your local elder abuse hotline. If you are in the United States, contact Adult Protective Services for a thorough investigation of the elderly abuse case.
Notice that the suggestion of reporting elder abuse might be faced with strong rejection from the elder himself. Why? The reasons are as follows.
- The elder might be intimidated or scared of the abuser. After a long period of threats and belittlement, the victim might end up overestimating the abuser’s powers. They might think that you or the government cannot save him from abuse and that by reporting he’ll be punished.
- The elder might be persuaded by the abuser that no one else will take care of him. So he might choose the abuse over the supposed abandonment.
- The abusive caregiver might be the elder’s son or daughter. In this case, the elder might be ashamed of reporting them. Or he might not want to get them in trouble.
In all cases, try to comfort and reassure the elder. Explain to them that they deserve much better and that “much better” is possible. Let them know that they have a choice to not live in constant fear and misery.
If the elder of your concern is mentally healthy enough to make their own decision, try to respect his choice. If he chooses to not report his children or caregiver, don’t force him into it. Rather, assure him that you’ll be around to help whenever he needs you. Provide him with the elder abuse hotline number of your area. Gain his trust and keep an open channel of communication with him. Visit and call often. Make sure your senior friend or family gets some time outdoors, in a social activity or in your company. Offer to be there unconditionally and intervene whenever he needs you to.
Elder Abuse Statistics
Here are a few elder abuse statistics that you might want to know.
- According to the Natural Center for Victims of Crime, 33% of elder abusers are adult children, 22% are other members of the family, 16% are external caregivers, and 11% are spouses. Because of the huge percentage of elder abuse among the family, most of these cases go unreported.
- Reporting elder abuse is very challenged, either due to the elder’s fear or due to his forgetfulness or confusion. As a result, for every case of elderly abuse that gets reported, 5 other cases go unreported.
- Each year, approximately 2 million elders fall victims to abuse in the United States alone.
An abused elderly is 3 times more likely to die than a loved well taken care of senior. Unlike child abuse, the mistreatment of an elder can pass unnoticed and unpunished. The elders don’t have the chance to grow up and report the misdeeds of their abusers and serve him justice; they don’t. And if the abuse is too severe that it kills them, the crime committed against them will just die with them. Don’t turn a blind eye to an elder’s suffering or scream for help. Be present. Do the right thing. Pay forward. One day, someone will stick around to care for you and love you too.
Find your state elder abuse hotline now.