Some older adults rely on caretakers, family members, and the healthcare system to provide them with the all-around support they need during their later years. In many cases, the care that they get is high quality and allows both the caretaker and the client to benefit from each other. However, in some situations, older adults become susceptible to mistreatment and elder abuse.
To be clear, elder abuse isn't just physical harm. It can also include mental and sexual abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), one in ten adults aged 65 and older experiences some form of elder abuse each year. This means that millions of vulnerable adults are affected. It's important to learn and recognize the signs of elder abuse in order to help protect your loved ones and others.
7 Signs That an Older Adult is Experiencing Abuse
Older adults can face abuse in many facets of their life. For example, whether they live independently at home, receive support from an in-home caregiver, or reside in an assisted living facility, abuse can and does occur.
The DOJ classifies elder abuse as "An intentional act or failure to act by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult." In addition, the DOJ separates elder abuse into five distinct categories, including neglect, financial exploitation and fraud, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. It's important that people remain alert for signs of physical, emotional, and financial abuse.
1. Unexplained Physical Injuries
If an older adult in your life has visible signs of injury, it may be a sign that physical abuse is occurring. However, as people age, they may naturally become more prone to injuries. For this reason, it's important to find out as much information about the ailments as possible in order to best gauge how the injuries occurred.
You can do this by asking the older adult in your life a series of questions. How did the injuries occur? How long ago did the accident happen? Are they prone to specific types of incidents, such as falling? See if they can talk about the injuries freely and honestly. Then, check to make sure their descriptions of incidents seem plausible.
Many older adults hesitate to report incidents of abuse due to shame, gaslighting, and the fear of not being believed. In addition, they might conceal the truth in order to prevent loved ones from worrying about them. For this reason, you should also let the adult know that they are in a safe space to share what has happened and that the only way you can help is if you know what's really going on. Some signs of physical abuse to look out for are:
- Broken bones
- Bruises and welts
- Burns or scars
- Cuts and abrasions
- Head injuries
- Sprains or dislocations
- Vomiting, drowsiness, or other effects of poisoning or drug overdoses
It's also important to note if the same types of injuries are occurring more than once. This can help you decipher whether the common injuries are actually a pattern of physical abuse. You should pay attention to any changes or damages to their home environment that may have resulted from abusive behavior. For example, broken belongings, dents or scuffs in the walls, or items that may have been moved around the house in order to hide signs of abuse.
2. Poor Personal and Home Hygiene
Another sign that older adults might be experiencing abuse is if there seems to be a lack of care for themselves or their homes. These may be signs of neglect that show that a caretaker may not be fulfilling their responsibilities.
Neglect can be anything from a lack of basic hygiene, an inadequate supply of food, or limited physical activity. All of these are examples of ways that an older adult might be receiving improper care. Some additional examples of neglect may include:
- A cluttered or dirty home
- Appearing unwashed
- Being left alone for extended periods of time
- Frequently missing doctors appointments or other events
- Lack of basic hygiene such as clean clothes, washed hair, or brushed teeth
- Lack of important medical aids such as hearing aids, eyeglasses, or walkers
- Low or limited food or medicine supply in their home
- Rashes on the body from lack of cleaning or being sedentary for extended periods of time
- Untreated bed and pressure sores
If you notice that an older adult seems as though they are experiencing neglect due to a caregiver, ask them questions to find out more. When was the last time they were bathed? How regularly does it occur? Are they happy with their current care schedule? If they don't seem to have a routine schedule or feel as though they are not receiving enough care, it may be a sign of abusive behavior.
3. Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse
Older adults may also experience sexual abuse at the hands of a caregiver or medical provider. In fact, they can be especially vulnerable to this type of abuse because people may take advantage of their lapses in memory, decreased strength, and other medical ailments.
Older adult sexual abuse can involve unwanted sexual advances, forced nudity, or even assault. This can be a particularly difficult form of abuse for people to tell others about, so it's especially important to know the signs. Some signs to look out for include:
- Abrupt changes in behavior, such as social withdrawal
- Bleeding in intimate areas or staining of undergarments
- Bruising on certain areas of the body
- Fear, anxiety, or shyness around the caregiver
- Pain in intimate areas when using the restroom
- Unexplained sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
If you suspect that an older adult is experiencing sexual abuse, it's important to remove them from the dangerous situation and make sure that they are safe. Then, you can contact local authorities to make a plan to move forward.
4. Unusual Financial Behavior
Another sign of elder abuse is financial exploitation or fraud. In these instances, a caregiver might limit or withhold an older adult's access to funds, conceal certain financial information, or steal money from them. This is known as financial abuse and can be a way for caregivers to manipulate or intimidate older adults, as well as gain control over their lives. Some signs of financial exploitation include:
- Abrupt financial changes, such as unexplained withdrawals or frequent banking transfers
- Checks or financial documents signed with unrecognizable signatures
- Missing belongings around the house
- Signed powers of attorney and other legal documents that take power away from the older adult
- Spending or lifestyle changes for the caregiver
- The older adult is uninformed about their financial situation
- Unpaid bills or notices
- Unusual financial arrangements made by a caregiver on the senior's behalf
If you feel like a loved one is being taken advantage of financially, it may be helpful to check with the older adult to confirm that they are aware of the financial changes happening in their life. If they do not remember signing certain documents or do not have the capacity to responsibly make financial decisions for themselves, you should contact a lawyer to learn more about how to protect their financial situation.
5. Sudden Behavioral Changes
It's also important to be on the lookout for signs of psychological and emotional abuse. This abuse involves words and non-physical actions that are meant to frighten, manipulate, or confuse a person.
This can cause older adults to experience mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety, as well as isolate them from their social resources. It can come in many forms, including threats, insults, and grooming behaviors. Some elements of psychological abuse to look out for include:
- Changes to their mood, such as loss of self-esteem
- Displaying fear, depression, anxiety, and nervousness
- Displaying fearful behavior in the presence of specific people or places
- Experiencing altered sleep patterns
- Lack of trust in certain relationships
- Withdrawing from regular activities or relationships
If you notice that a loved one has experienced impactful changes to their mood or behaviors, you should take some time to check in with them. It may take more than one conversation for them to open up to you, and that's okay. You can also suggest speaking with a mental health professional to help them find the care they need.
How to Support Older Adults Experiencing Abuse
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are some risk factors that may increase an older adult's likelihood of experiencing abuse. For example, a lack of social support and past family conflict may leave older adults especially vulnerable.
Any older adult can become a victim of elder abuse. It's important for people to stick up for members of the older community to ensure that they are receiving the helpful, informed care they deserve. You can look to the resources below to find ways to help loved ones.
Contact Adult Protective Services
Every county and state has an Adult Protective Services program (APS). This government agency is designed to help older and dependent adults stay safe from neglect and abuse. You can report incidents of abuse to your local APS, and they will launch an investigation into concerns. In addition, they can connect and refer you to other community resources designed to support older adults.
Call the Domestic Violence Hotline
If you want to report an incident of elder abuse, provide support to an older adult, or find out more information about how to move forward, you can contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. The hotline can be reached at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or you can text "START" to 88788. If it's safe to do so, you can call this hotline with your loved one to make a plan to move forward.
Remove Them from the Situation
If an older adult in your life may be experiencing abuse, do everything you can to remove them from potentially dangerous situations. If they currently reside at an assisted living facility, it might be best to explore other housing options. If your loved one uses an in-home caregiver for support, it might be helpful to explore other aids or seek help through a different company.
This might not be easy depending on your bandwidth and living arrangements. However, you can lean on family and community support to keep your loved one out of harm's way while you make future arrangements.
It's not easy for older adults to report incidents of abuse. For this reason, it's especially important that loved ones and others in the community speak up when they see the signs. When you get others involved, you might just save a life.