Many older adults live in fear and isolation, with their emotional, physical, and even financial well-being at risk due to elder abuse. UR Medicine Geriatric Specialist Dr. Thomas Caprio says knowing the signs—and taking action when necessary—may help protect your loved ones.
Elder abuse targets vulnerable older adults and comes in many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, or financial. It can result from self-neglect or a trusted caregiver abandoning responsibility. And it’s far more common than you might think. A 2011 New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study estimated that more than 260,000 older adults in the state had been victims of at least one form of elder abuse in the preceding year.
There is a dramatic gap between the number of elder abuse cases and those actually reported to law enforcement and health care professionals. Older adults may be afraid to report abuse and families may not recognize the warning signs. The key to both preventing and addressing elder abuse is vigilance: identifying it early and knowing where to turn for help.
So, how can family members help prevent abuse? How do you even know if abuse is occurring—especially if you don’t live near a loved one, friend, parent, or other relative?
Be alert to the signs of elder abuse:
- Unexplained injuries (bruises, cuts, fractures)
- Torn clothing, blood in underwear
- Changes in behaviors (fear, depression, insomnia)
- Weight loss, unkempt appearance, poor hygiene
- Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts, unexpected gifts of money
- Unpaid bills, forged signatures on checks, changes to legal papers (wills and bank accounts)
Many victims of abuse live in fear or embarrassment when physical, emotional, or sexual abuse occurs. They need to know they have people who care about them and can help and—most importantly—to understand that it is not their fault.
While it may be difficult or uncomfortable, having honest and open lines of communication with loved ones is critical to preventing and intervening in abuse situations. It’s important to remove the stigma of abuse and create an environment of safety and trust.
Here are some questions to ask if you suspect a loved one may be subject to abuse:
- Do you feel safe at home? Have you been threatened by people in your home?
- Have you been asked to lend money to someone and don’t feel comfortable about it?
- Have you been hit, punched, slapped, or threatened with physical harm?
- Have you been touched in inappropriate ways? Does anyone make you feel afraid?
- Do you get phone calls asking for your social security number, credit card information or other personal data?
When any abuse is suspected, seek immediate medical attention. Social workers in the emergency department of a hospital or in a primary care practice can be champions for vulnerable adults. Adult protective services can investigate and has specific legal authority to intervene in cases of adults in imminent danger. Police may be involved when assault or criminal activities are suspected.
The key is to keep open lines of communication with loved ones, talk to health care professionals and law enforcement when abuse is suspected, and do not delay in reaching out to the community experts to insure another person does not fall victim to abuse.
Help is Available
In the Finger Lakes region, the Elder Abuse Prevention Program through Lifespan provides intervention services in Monroe, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Schuyler, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates counties. Call them at (585) 244-8400 for cases of suspected financial exploitation, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect.
Thomas V. Caprio, M.D., is an associate professor in URMC’s Division of Geriatrics and Aging, specializing in geriatric medicine, hospice and palliative care. He also serves as director of the Finger Lakes Geriatric Education Center.