Elder abuse, the intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver or trusted individual that causes harm to an older person, is a widespread injustice with many consequences for our society. A comprehensive review published in 2015 by the New England Journal of Medicine found that approximately one in ten seniors is the victim of elder abuse.

What is Elder Abuse?

As noted above, elder abuse refers to acts that are detrimental to seniors. It takes many forms, including:

  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological or verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Financial abuse and exploitation
  • Neglect or isolation

Each state defines elder abuse differently and there is some debate over whether mistreatment by strangers, rather than by a person in a trust relationship with the senior, such as a spouse, child, sibling or friend, also constitutes elder abuse. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), in almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect incidents, the perpetrator is a family member. Two thirds of perpetrators are adult children or spouses.

What Causes Elder Abuse?

As we age, it becomes harder to stay connected to our communities. As a result, older people are more likely to experience social isolation, which increases the likelihood of abuse and neglect.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), elder abuse affects seniors across all socioeconomic groups, cultures, and races and can occur anywhere when they are disconnected from social supports, including:

  • In a person’s own home
  • In nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other institutional settings
  • In hospitals

While any older person is potentially at risk of elder abuse, women and people 80 and older are more likely to be victims. Factors such as dementia or poor physical health can further increase isolation, which puts people at an even greater risk of experiencing abuse or neglect.

Why Does Elder Abuse Remain Such an “Invisible” Problem?

Just like other forms of interpersonal violence, elder abuse usually occurs behind closed doors. Many people who experience elder abuse are reluctant to report it because they may:

  • Feel ashamed and embarrassed, particularly if a family member is the perpetrator
  • Be afraid that the perpetrator will get in trouble
  • Worry that they will be forced to live somewhere else
  • Feel guilty or somehow to blame
  • Be in denial that the abuse is occurring
  • Be afraid that if they report it, the abuse will get worse

There are also indications that a culture of ageism (biases against aging) and a fear of growing old may keep older people marginalized. Therefore, many problems as we age remain hard to see or are viewed as unimportant, according to NCEA.

What Are some of the Warning Signs of Financial Abuse?

We know that financial abuse is frequently committed by someone seniors know and trust, most often a family member. Here are some of the warning signs of financial abuse:

  • Unexplained changes in finances
  • Lack of financial understanding
  • Suspicious characteristics of finances
  • Isolation or loneliness
  • Physical struggles
  • Suspect behavior of relatives

For details on these warning signs, please refer to our June 2018 blog post on this topic.

If you spot any of these signs, reach out to your loved ones. Offering your support and understanding can be a crucial step in protecting someone from abuse. Further, do not hesitate to involve authorities if you feel financial abuse is taking place. You can report elder abuse online at the website for the Georgia Department of Human Services or call the elder abuse hotline at 1-866-55AGING. Of course, if you believe the older person is in a life-threatening situation, contact 911 or the local police department.

To learn more about elder abuse, please visit the National Center on Elder Abuse.