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How to Spot Signs of Elder Abuse

Here's what to be on the lookout for — plus advice on what to do


Five million Americans are affected by some form of elder abuse each year, according to The Elder Justice Roadmap, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Though the government has focused attention on the issue, abuse of the elderly may be difficult to pinpoint. That’s because its signs could appear to symptoms of dementia or the natural results of frailty that come with age.

(MORE: 5 Steps to Combat and Prevent Elder Abuse)

In fact, many of the warning signs do overlap with symptoms of mental and physical degeneration. Additionally, seniors may be hesitant to talk openly about abuse, especially if it is coming from a loved one. (Contrary to popular belief, elders are more likely to be abused by their loved ones than by paid workers.)

Keep in mind, elder abuse does not have to be physical. Other categories are sexual, psychological, financial, and abandonment and neglect. Any time a senior is not being treated correctly constitutes elder abuse.

(MORE: How to Keep a Parent Safe from Financial Abuse)

So how do you know when abuse is happening, and what can you do about it?

Recognizing The Signs

Pay attention to the elderly people you know. Be on the lookout for some of these common signs that abuse may be happening:

  • Frequent arguments between caregivers and the patient, whether they are professional caregivers or family members
  • Changes in a senior’s personality or behavior
  • Unexplained injuries such as burns, bruises, welts, cuts or scars
  • Broken bones, dislocations and sprains
  • Failure to take medication or overdose of medication
  • A caregiver’s refusal to let you see the patient alone
  • Appearing disheveled, in torn or soiled clothes or not appropriately dressed for the weather
  • Appearing hungry, malnourished, disoriented or confused
  • Unexplained charges or a suspicious drain of money beyond daily living expenses
  • Unexplained weight loss that could indicate lack of proper nutrition or neglect

It’s important to be an advocate for the elderly people you’re close with. As people age, they become more physically frail and less able to stand up to bullying. Waning sight, memory and hearing can allow seniors to be easily taken advantage of.

The same ailments and conditions that make seniors frail can also create stress for caregivers, who may lash out in frustration.

What To Do

If you do notice something strange, like bruises or uncalled for cautiousness around you, it is important to notify authorities.

(MORE: Why Elder Abuse is Such a Slippery Crime)

If you are the family member of someone you believe is being taken advantage of, don’t hesitate to report it to Adult Protective Services (APS). There are APS agencies all over the country, and each has regulations governing confidentiality. In some states, you can submit a report of abuse anonymously.

In the U.S., more than half a million reports of abuse are recorded each year, but there are many more that never reach authorities.

When reporting abuse, you don’t necessarily need “hard evidence” and in many situations, abuse can be gradual with very subtle changes. The more details you provide to Adult Protective Services the better.

Provide Moral Support, Too

Seniors do have the right to refuse aid unless they are unable to make decisions for themselves. This means that even if you do report signs of abuse, there may be no way to help. Even sadder, some seniors may view an abusive caretaker as better than no caretaker at all.

In situations like these, it is important to stay supportive and tell the senior they have other alternatives.

Even if you don’t think your report will help or the elderly person refuses help, each reported instance provides a catalogue of what is going on. The more information provided, the better the chance you can get through to the senior and get him/her the care they need.

Older people can become very isolated from the rest of the community since they aren’t working or going to school, so no one may recognize the subtle changes that are apparent only through daily contact. It is very easy for abuse to go unnoticed for long periods.

If you have a loved one in an institutional setting like a nursing home, visit regularly so you’re better able to catch any signs of abuse and encourage fair and kind treatment.

Jacob Edward is the founder and manager of Senior Planning, in Phoenix, Ariz., which has helped many Arizona seniors and their families navigate the process of long-term care planning.

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