Elder abuse is the infliction of physical or emotional harm on vulnerable seniors. Though it does not get the same degree of attention and condemnation in our society as child abuse and perhaps spousal abuse, it is a very real, tragic, and not at all uncommon phenomenon.
Elder abuse can be inflicted by family or intimate partner, strangers, or personnel at institutions such as nursing homes. There are many forms of mistreatment of seniors, some overlapping, any of which constitute elder abuse:
1. Psychological abuse
The use of threats, humiliation, or other verbal or nonverbal conduct against an elderly person to inflict mental or emotional anguish.
2. Physical abuse
The infliction upon an elderly person of inappropriate restraint, or physical force that results in bodily injury, pain, or impairment.
3. Sexual abuse
Any non-consensual sexual contact with an elderly person.
4. Domestic violence
The use of violence or the threat of violence in a domestic context by an intimate partner to exercise power and control over an elderly person.
The failure of someone in the role of caregiver to fulfill their responsibilities in taking care of an elderly person.
6. Financial abuse
The illegal or improper appropriation of an elderly person’s money, property, or other resources.
The category of financial abuse highlights an important reason why elderly people can be especially vulnerable to abuse. Some-certainly not all-elderly people suffer from some degree of mental impairment. Even leaving aside cases of full blown dementia, there can be some memory loss, depression, diminution of judgment, etc., which for that matter can be exacerbated by issues of physical disabilities and/or poverty, where some seniors are less able to take advantage of online and other resources that are available to keep people informed and better able to defend themselves.
Yet there is much reluctance-justifiably so-to step in and disallow an elderly person from making his or her own decisions due to diminished capacity. Understandably, the elderly themselves often protest bitterly against any such move, and society prefers not to override their preferences paternalistically except in severe cases. Consider, for instance, the painful issue of some elderly drivers remaining licensed and on the road well past when it’s safe for them to do so.
But because of the laudable decision to allow the elderly to retain the right to conduct their own affairs as long as possible (compared to, say, the much more severe limitations on minors doing so), unscrupulous people from all walks of life have plenty of openings to exploit them.
It’s easy for people to react in a kneejerk fashion to subprime mortgage peddlers, Nigerian e-mail scammers, televangelists, purveyors of dubious unorthodox medical cures, and those who use misleading marketing in general with “Well, it’s people’s own fault if they’re stupid enough to fall for such things. You can’t protect people from themselves. Buyer beware.” But a lot of times it’s not a matter of being “stupid” (even assuming it’s somehow OK to have a cavalier attitude about the victimizing of stupid people). A disproportionate number of the people who are separated from their money by these folks are the elderly. It is our parents and grandparents sending money off for these dubious purposes, because their judgment-much as we and especially they strain every nerve not to admit it-has diminished to that of a 13 year old, or a 10 year old, or even below.
If one knows or suspects that an elderly person is being victimized in any way that constitutes elder abuse, or may be vulnerable to such abuse in the future, there are many resources available to help. These include:
* Adult Protective Services programs in most states.
* Law enforcement.
* Regulators of nursing home and residential care facilities, including federally-funded ombudsman programs. State Attorneys General are required to investigate fraud and patient abuse at any such facilities that participate in Medicaid.
* Mental health professionals to provide assessments of an elderly person’s capacity to meet their own basic needs, make their own decisions, and defend themselves against abuse.
* Counselors to assist the elderly in making decisions to resolve conflicts in their life and preserve their safety, and to overcome trauma if already victimized.
* Attorneys, since elder abuse has both criminal and civil legal implications.
* Friends, family, and other support services to assist the elderly person with money management and other tasks that might otherwise be handled poorly enough to invite abuse. Often this is a matter of not relying too heavily on one caregiver individual or institution, but having multiple sets of eyes aware of everything that’s going on that might give rise to trouble in an elderly person’s life.
* Victim and witness assistance programs in the criminal justice system.
* Domestic violence programs.
For assistance in finding relevant resources for dealing with and preventing elder abuse, some useful phone numbers to have (besides 911 when appropriate) include:
The Eldercare Locator, which directs callers to local programs and sources of information for the elderly: 800-677-1116
INFOLINK, which directs callers to appropriate criminal justice system services for crisis intervention, counseling, support groups, and support for crime victims: 800-394-2255
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which directs callers to local shelters, legal advocacy resources, and social service programs relevant to domestic abuse: 800-799-7233.
Perhaps the best overall resource to learn about elder abuse and what can be done to prevent it in greater detail is the Prevention of Elder Abuse.