Elder Abuse: Vulnerable Seniors

July 23, 2009

            Can society confidently feel the elderly are properly nurtured in their most vulnerable stage of life? Today seniors who can no longer care for themselves are forced into unfavorable decisions to completely rely on others. When an elderly citizen is entirely reliant on a caregiver, an assisted living home, or a relative, the likeliness of abuse increases drastically. Consequently, “it is estimated that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation, or self-neglect reported to authorities, about five more go unreported” (National Center on Elder Abuse). Elder abuse refers to a deliberate or negligent act against a vulnerable senior by any person that causes harm or risk of harm. There are several types of elder abuse including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect and abandonment. Unfortunately most incidences of elder abuse go unnoticed for fear of punishment, lack of knowledge concerning proper treatment, or delayed investigations into allegations. Elder abuse is a severe problem that society must be knowledgeable about to recognize and prevent.

Society has several common misconceptions about elder abuse. Because there were not as many elderly in the past, families could manage the burden of aging parents financially and emotionally. Also, “The first research studies to document the abuse and neglect that older adults are experiencing in their homes in the United States began appearing in professional journals and monographs in 1978” (Elder Abuse and Neglect by Mary J. Quinn and Susan K. Tomita). Currently, when most think of elder abuse a picture comes to mind of an elderly woman alone in a nursing home or in their own home mistreated by her son or daughter. In actuality, elder abuse can be just as brutal as child abuse or spousal abuse. Elder abuse involves physical, psychological, financial, and sexual abuse and neglect. Physical abuse includes inflicting or threatening injury on an elder or depriving an elder of basic necessities. Physical abuse is the most commonly encountered form of elder abuse as it is the most easily recognized. In fact, the General Accounting Office in March of 2002 distributed a shocking report of the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse amongst elders. The statement also revealed not enough is being done to protect our loved ones. Some seniors have suffered severe enough beatings to cause bruising, bone fractures, welts, punctures, abrasions, scalding, and even burns. Emotional abuse concerns mental pain or suffering on a senior verbally or nonverbally. Devastatingly, “Psychological abuse in the form of aggression, humiliation, and intimidation is the most difficult to identify and quantify” (Mark Bradley “Elder Abuse” British Medical Journal). During sexual abuse elders receive non-consensual sexual contact. Some warning signs of sexual abuse include torn or stained undergarments, hickies, genital irritation or infection, and bruising or cuts in pubic area. It requires sophisticated skills to deal with the complexities of sexual abuse including psychological problems of the victim and punishment of the abuser most likely part of the staff. Sadly, the elderly are often exploited financially through illegal taking of money or property. Fiduciary abuse could deprive the victim of the ability to afford medical supplies. Research has discovered living alone or living without the support of family or community increases the risk of financial exploitation. Neglect consists of withholding food, protection, shelter or health care to a vulnerable elder. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, more than 550,000 persons, older than 60 years of age, experience abuse and neglect in domestic settings. Neglect might directly cause poor health due to dehydration or malnutrition or it might lead to delays in medical care or might even involve noncompliance with a prescription or health plan. Lastly, abandonment of an elderly is desertion by an individual who is responsible for the care of that person.

Most elderly adults cannot accurately identify abuse or know what to do if they feel abuse is present. In 2003 a study on the decision-making abilities of elderly adults in facilities regarding abuse, found 54% of those surveyed could accurately identify abuse and only 25% knew what strategies to use to handle such situations. In an interview with Lisa Young, a woman dealing with abuses to her elderly mother and her elderly mother- in-law, revealed why many keep their mouths shut to abuses. She claimed, “My mother has been horribly mistreated in facilities and by caregivers. Sometimes she will call me at night crying due to how she’s been handled but she is too afraid to cause tension. She worries that she would be treated even worse if she verbalizes her concerns.” Research has revealed approximately 84% of elder abuse incidents go unreported and over 5 million seniors experience abuse or neglect every year. As Lisa Young indicated an important reason for elderly not disclosing mistreatment includes fear of institutionalization, abandonment and repercussions.  “According to one law enforcement official, family members are sometimes fearful that the resident will be asked to leave the home and are troubled by the prospect of finding a new place for the resident to live [if they report suspected abuses]” (Michael McCarthy “Report finds abuse in US nursing homes goes unreported and unpunished.” The Lancet). Additionally, staff members are reluctant to report learned or witnessed abuse due to fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation from management and coworkers. Fear is a deadly factor when it comes to elder abuse. Abuse should never be the solution to any problem no matter how overburdened a relative is or how stressed a caregiver is or how understaffed a facility is. Abuse is a crime that is underreported in our society due to a lack of knowledge about the problem and how to fix it if abuse is occurring. The only way to prevent the high prevalence of elder abuse is to know how to spot it, how to report it, and then how to prevent the action from occurring again or to stop it from happening at all.

Authur: Breanna Danielle Elder Abuse Organization is dedicated to the prevention of elder abuse, exploitation of seniors through education and support of families and caregivers.

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