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What Is Elder Abuse?

A comprehensive guide to understanding domestic violence and the role of adult protective services

By Shelley Flannery | Domesticshelters.org

Elder abuse is the intentional or negligent mistreatment of an adult over the age of 60 and hundreds of thousands of seniors are victims each year. At least one in 10 older adults living at home are abused, neglected or exploited every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but incidence rates are likely much higher, considering elder abuse often goes unreported to adult protective services organizations.

Types of Elder Abuse

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines six types of elder abuse:

Physical abuse: Inflicting pain or injury through such actions as slapping, hitting, bruising or restraining. Physical abuse can also be inflicted through medication tampering—giving too much or withholding medication.
Sexual abuse: Any nonconsensual sexual contact, whether comprehended or not.
Emotional or psychological abuse: Inflicting mental anguish or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts such as threatening, intimidating or humiliating.
• Neglect: Failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, healthcare or protection.
• Financial abuse: Illegal use, misuse or concealment of funds, property, assets or benefits for someone else’s gain.
• Abandonment: Desertion of a vulnerable adult.

Who Is at Risk For Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse, as with all forms of domestic violence, can happen to anyone. Seniors of all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, education levels and socioeconomic status can become victims of abuse. Older women are more likely to be abused than men, according to the NIA. But the CDC reports that physical abuse among senior men is on the rise, having increased 75% between 2002 and 2016 as compared with a 35% increase for senior women.

Other risk factors include:

• Being dependent on a caregiver for daily living activities, such as getting dressed, bathing, eating and taking medicine
• Having a physical disability
• Having dementia or memory problems
• Lack of support from other family or friends

Who Commits Elder Abuse?

Anyone can be a perpetrator of elder abuse. The person most likely to abuse a senior is a caregiver, whether that’s an intimate partner, adult child, other family member or a paid caregiver.

Factors that make a person more likely to abuse an elderly individual include:

• Mental health problems
• Drug or alcohol abuse
• Exposure to abuse as a child
• Inadequate coping skills
• Financial dependence on the person being cared for
• Lack of caregiver support or access to respite services

Recognizing Elder Abuse

Unfortunately, a senior who is being abused may not come forward for a variety of reasons, such as fear of retaliation by the abuser, being financially dependent on the abuser or not knowing they’re being abused. But no one deserves to be abused or neglected, which is why it’s important for others to speak up if they suspect an older adult is being abused.

Signs of elder abuse include:

• Unexplained bruises, marks, broken bones or abrasions that could be indicative of physical abuse or any bruises or injuries to the breasts or genitalia
• Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, sudden change in alertness or unusual depression
• Sudden changes in financial situation
• Poor hygiene, bedsores, unusual weight loss or unattended medical needs
• Belittling, threats or frequent arguments between patient and caregiver

Elder abuse takes many forms and can be difficult to detect. Learn more signs of elder abuse.

If you suspect an elderly loved one is being abused, report it to authorities. If you believe the victim to be in imminent danger, call 911. Otherwise, call your local police department’s nonemergency line or contact your state’s adult protective services agency. Find an APS office in your area.

What Will Adult Protective Services Do?

Anyone can report suspected abuse to adult protective services. Mandatory reporters—people working in professions who are obligated to report abuse if they suspect it—include police officers, doctors and nurses, clergy, dentists, etc. This list varies by state. Check your state’s adult protective services mandatory reporting laws.

Once adult protective services is notified, the agency will assign a case worker to investigate. The case agent will then:

• Interview the potential victim, witnesses, other sources and the alleged abuser(s).
• Examine evidence, such as medical records and bank account activity.
• Address any immediate needs for food, shelter or law enforcement protection.

If the agent does not find any evidence abuse is occurring, then the case will be closed. If, on the other hand, the agent determines that someone is being abused, he or she will work with the victim to create a case plan to stop the abuse. That typically involves referrals to social services to address not only the victim’s health and safety needs but also physical and mental health treatment, housing assistance, legal assistance, financial assistance, personal care and meal assistance.

In cases in which the adult protective services case manager believes the victim is unable to make decisions for himself or herself, the agent will order a capacity screening and may involve the court to assign a guardian. However, according to the National Adult Protective Services Resource Center, “It is the duty of the APS professional to exhaust all other measures before seeking involuntary protective services.”

Can Survivors of Elder Abuse Go to Emergency Shelters?

Absolutely. Domestic violence shelters provide services including emergency housing to victims of all types of domestic abuse, not only intimate partner violence. To find a shelter that serves elderly clients, use our search tool and turn on the filter for demographics served–elderly.

Shelters specifically designed to care for survivors of elder abuse, like The Weinberg Center in New York City, are harder to come by but they do exist.

Elder abuse is a challenging issue for the survivor and family members. Find out what else you can do to help an elderly loved one experiencing abuse by reading “Ask Amanda: My Elderly Mom is Being Abused” or visit the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life.