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When you count the various forms elder abuse takes: Caregiver abuse, nursing home abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial exploitation, domestic violence and neglect—the numbers of seniors being exploited and abused are staggering. The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study found more than 500,000 seniors over the age of  60 were victims of domestic abuse and didn’t include an estimated 84% of incidents that go unreported to authorities—denying victims protection and support.  The high incidence of underreporting has led the Senate Special Committee on Aging to estimate up to five million older Americans are likely victims of abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation every year. 


Scope of the Problem

Among the consequences of elder abuse is injury, economic ruin and even premature death—often at the hands of hired caregivers, nursing home staff, and family members.  Elder financial exploitation is also common among the aging, impacting their health, dignity, and financial security. Elder abuse is estimated run into the tens of billions of dollars annually in health care, social services, investigative and legal costs, and lost income and assets. These are economic resources that could have been used to pay for essentials such as housing, food, medications, and healthcare.

While there are certain factors that can make some seniors more vulnerable, no one is immune to elder abuse—it can happen to anyone. And with only 1 in 5 crimes never being discovered (and some studies put the rate as high as 1 in 24 crimes never being found out) many perpetrators go undetected by the law and are free to do as they chose to their elderly victims. Millions of American seniors are suffering right now.

Nursing Home Abuse

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities account for nearly 10%, or roughly 150,000, abused seniors each year. Many of these cases go unreported—although some cases are extreme and even result in the murder of a loved one. Nursing home abuse in the United States is an epidemic. What is most tragic is that so many of these crimes go unreported and unpunished. The estimated death toll due to elder abuse is 1,800 deaths annually. The Special Investigations Division of the House Government Reform Committee discovered nursing home violations in almost 30% of U.S. nursing homes, with the most common problems being: malnutrition, dehydration, bedsores, inadequate sanitation or hygiene, inadequate medical services, and preventable accidents.

Nursing home abuse is a tricky issue because it can be hard to identify and prove. It frequently goes unreported for many reasons. The senior may not see loved ones very often, making it difficult for loved ones to notice changes in appearance or behavior. Since the elderly are often frail and prone to health issues, it’s easy for perpetrators to pass off injuries as “accidents”, such as falls. To add to the problem, many elderly patients suffer from memory loss or communication problems, making it difficult for them to report what is happening to their families. Even if seniors can communicate with ease, they are sometimes reluctant to reveal what is happening to them, not wanting to leave their friends at the home or believing that the next home might be even worse if they leave.

The best way to prevent future nursing home abuse is to visit the senior regularly. Interact with the other nursing home residents and nursing home staff to get a sense of how things are run and the personalities of the caregivers. Important factors to note are: cleanliness of the facility, medical equipment and staff, staff-to-patient ratio and regulations for training.

Caregiver Abuse

Taking care of an aging family member can be stressful; sometimes Caregivers can begin to resent the patient for financial troubles, loss of free time, and loss of their own independence. When a Caregiver is sufficiently stressed they can lash out upon what they see as the cause of that stress—the senior dependent upon their care.  

Studies identify the following factors as increasing the possibility of abuse: The intensity of an elderly person’s illness or dementia, social isolation (the caregiver has no one to help with the patient’s needs), the senior had been an abusive parent or spouse to the Caregiver, the Caregivers problems with drugs or alcohol, history of domestic violence in the home, or the elder is prone to exerting verbal or physical aggression toward the Caregiver.

In many cases, elder abuse is unintentional; it is a result of Caregivers feeling they are pushed beyond their capabilities or resources.  They may not intend to yell at, hit, or ignore the needs of the elders they are caring for, but they may lack the psychological and financial resources and training to provide adequate care. The stress of elder care can lead to mental, economic, and physical health problems that make caregivers burned out, impatient, and unable to keep from lashing out against elders in their care.

If you’re overwhelmed by the demands of caring for an elder, here are some ways to seek help before the situation turns serious:

  • Ask for help from friends, relatives, or local respite care agencies, so you can take a break
  • Find an adult day care program
  • Don’t neglect your own health and wellness and get medical care for yourself when necessary
  • Look into stress reduction practices (exercise, meditation, etc.)
  • Seek counseling for depression, which can lead to elder abuse.
  • Find a support group for caregivers
  • If you’re having problems with drug or alcohol abuse, get help.

Elder Financial Abuse

Estimated losses to seniors each year from financial abuse reach $2.9 billion. But due to underreporting, A new study by True Link concludes that the actual figure is over twelve times previous estimates—at $36.48 billion every year.

The senior may be tricked into giving consent to credit card charges by scammers or they may have their social security checks cashed by friends or family who only give them a portion and keep the rest.  Another common con is financial predators that call seniors and trick them into providing their Medicare numbers and other vital medical identity information so they can perpetrate Medicare fraud in their name. If you have a loved one that is aging be sure their finances are in order and be on alert for financial exploitation. Financial abuse of the elderly has even been committed by nursing home staff, their own accountants or insurance agents, friends or neighbors.

What to do if you Suspect Abuse

Most states have laws mandating professionals report abuse when they suspect it. Concerned loved ones and friends are also encouraged to report; and there are laws that specifically shield those who report from liability in the event that the well-meaning report turns out to be unfounded.

Adult protective service (APS) is the primary agency that deals with reports of elder abuse in most states. Check your directory for the APS program in your community. In most communities, it is listed under the Department of Human Services or Social Services. If you suspect Medicaid fraud you can report it online.

When our loved ones get older they depend on us for help. It may be strange to realize that a senior who was once very independent and capable is now in need of our help, but the best way to protect those we love is to pay attention to what is going on with them: who is around them, how they look and their demeanor, who may not have their best interests at heart and even who may be hurting them. You can be your aging loved ones best defense against elder abuse.