Elder abuse: When you suspect a loved one's mistreatment

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Elder abuse: Signs to look for, action to take

Elder abuse occurs when someone — usually a family member — harms an older adult.

Perhaps you suspect your elderly neighbor isn't caring for herself the way she needs to, but you aren't certain. Or maybe you wonder about some bruises you've seen on your aging uncle. You can't get rid of the nagging feeling that something's not right. But is it elder abuse?

What should you look for if you suspect elder abuse?

If you're concerned an older adult might be abused, knowing the signs and symptoms of abuse can help you determine if a problem exists. These signs and symptoms may include:

  • Physical injury. Examples of questionable injuries include bruises, cuts, burn or rope marks, and broken bones or sprains that can't be explained. Other signs of potential problems include sudden changes in behavior, comments about being battered or the refusal of the caregiver to allow you to visit the older person alone.
  • Lack of physical care. Indications of substandard physical care include dehydration, malnourishment, weight loss and poor hygiene. Bed sores, soiled bedding, unmet medical needs and comments about being mistreated also may indicate a problem. Lack of physical care can happen to older adults living in their homes, as well as in institutional care settings, such as a nursing home.
  • Unusual behaviors. Changes in an older person's behavior or emotional state may suggest a problem. Examples include agitation, withdrawal, fear or anxiety, apathy, or reports of being treated improperly.
  • Unaccounted for financial changes. Financial problems may include missing money or valuables, unexplained financial transactions, unpaid bills despite available funds and sudden transfer of assets, as well as comments about being exploited. Another sign may be older adults who are controlling their finances but don't allow relatives to see their records.

What if an older adult is hurting himself or herself?

One of the most common types of elder abuse occurs when older adults unintentionally jeopardize their own safety. Self-neglect can happen if an older adult deprives himself or herself of necessities such as food, water or medication. If the older adult is mentally competent, yet consciously makes decisions that put himself or herself in harm's way, it may be a case of self-neglect. Self-neglect often occurs in older adults who have declining health, who are isolated or depressed, or who abuse drugs or alcohol.

Signs that an older adult is neglecting himself or herself include:

  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Wearing soiled or ragged clothes
  • Lacking food or basic utilities
  • Refusing to take medications

Contact resources in your area if you know older adults who may be neglecting their own needs and putting themselves in danger. Contact your loved one's doctor to report your concerns. Often, helping older adults who neglect themselves involves treating underlying conditions, such as depression, or putting older adults in touch with resources designed to help them get groceries and other necessities or help them with housework. It's usually possible for the older adult to remain at home, while at the same time improving his or her safety. In some cases, a guardian might be appointed to care for the older person.

Last Updated: 01/12/2007
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