Picture this: An assisted living home in a small town houses 50 seniors. Many of these seniors lived very different lives in different socio-economic income brackets, but still find themselves living together in the same community with similar struggles. Seniors are a vulnerable population due to sickness, weakness, and decreases in cognitive function. Unfortunately the vulnerable in this world often bear the brunt of the rest of society’s stress, ignorance, selfishness and anger. According to a study conducted by the government, the University of Rochester (2019) reported that 90% of senior abuse cases are carried out by family members, two-thirds by immediate family members. Sometimes the people closest to us present the greatest threat. Awareness of elder abuse has been growing, helping people to understand the types and variations in order to prevent harm, protecting seniors in our communities.
ELDER ABUSE POTENTIAL SCENARIOS
Let’s look at three potential scenarios of seniors in that assisted living home to see a few examples of some unfortunate common realities.
- Eva is a widow who is 81-years-old. She had a moderate income and raised two children. The children grew up to be successful, but were too busy to care for their aging mother, leaving her in a small house alone for many years before placing her in the assisted living home. Eva feels unloved and abandoned.
- Gertrude is 87-years-old and did not graduate from high school, living a poor life. Her only son lives on the other side of the country and calls once a week to check up on her. Gertrude feels that she is worthless and stupid. The frustrated, overworked young caregiver who helps her verbally abuses her.
- Betty is a 92-year-old woman who lived an affluent life. With aging she started to become more forgetful and confused. She had no children and her step-son embezzled her wealth, leaving her in this assisted living home.
As seen by these examples, people may live very different lives and yet all end up in a similar place. Deteriorating cognitive function shows no partiality. Embezzlement can happen to all socioeconomic levels. The vulnerable and weak are easier prey to those who are overwhelmed, unstable, or unkind. Even though awareness and statistics of elder abuse have continued to grow, many believe that it is still often unreported.
ELDER ABUSE FACTS AND STATISTICS
Aging often changes independence, freedom, and power. Black (2008) writes that elders have weakened sight, hearing, smell, voice, and they are more likely to be isolated from the
community. They may also have slower thought processing and poor coordination (Black, 2008). Stevenson (2009) explains that many elders fail to report abuse due to shame, fear of placement in institutions, isolation from people whom they could report to, and the fear that people will not believe them. There are different types of neglect, abuse, and exploitation many seniors face. The types of abuse reported in 2002 were in the following percentages:
- Abandonment or neglect: 52.3%
- Emotional abuse- 35.4%
- Financial abuse or exploitation- 30.2%
- Physical abuse: 25.6%
- Sexual abuse: 0.3%
- Other forms of abuse: 1.4%
The total percentage is not 100% because some individuals reported more than one type of abuse (Stevenson, 2009).
Stevenson (2009) went on to explain that typical abusers fit into two categories, intentional and unintentional. Most caregivers, both family members and professional employees, want to give good care. Some end up being abusive due to being overworked, overwhelmed, or stressed, and some due to ignorance or incompetence, lacking the ability to properly care for someone else. Sadly, there are also people who want to exploit others for their own gain and people who are power mongers who just want to control others (Stevenson, 2009). It is important for those who have a voice and power to defend the rights of those who may not, like children and seniors.
Black (2008) describes a type of abuse that is more unique to seniors, financial exploitation. In 2008 this was the third most common type of abuse to seniors. It includes fraud, theft, misusing assets for things like becoming eligible for Medicaid, and people knowingly misusing assets for their own gain. This type of abuse also stretches across all socioeconomic levels. Financial exploitation similarly most often occurs within families. Black’s article gave many stories of elders being robbed of large amounts of money. Oftentimes seniors would write wills specifically describing how they wanted their funds to be used and divided, but at some point power of attorney was given to a specific family member, usually due to the senior’s inability to manage things alone. The person with power of attorney would then change the will to solely have all power and money. Sometimes the seniors would be left without funds for medical care, or they would be placed in poor institutions because their money was stolen (Black, 2008).
The Elder Law Clinic (2013) explains the main types of legal powers given to individuals to help seniors. Guardianship can be given to someone who then has power to make decisions for seniors who can no longer make decisions for themselves. It can be designated for personal needs or for business/financial affairs. Power of attorney is similar except that the senior has to sign this document when they are fully mentally aware of the choice being made (The Elder Law Clinic, 2013). Black (2008) clarifies that there are two types of power of attorney. The first is general power of attorney, which gives broad power to give gifts, write checks, borrow money, handle legal documents, etc. Specific power of attorney, in contrast, limits the freedom given to individuals, with boundaries on what a person can and cannot do or change (Black, 2008).
REPORTING ELDER ABUSE
Black (2008) goes on to explain that all 50 states have voted in support of Adult Protective Services, though there are wide variations in what those services look like and how they are enacted. If a person knows of a senior being abused, it should be reported. If it is an emergency, dial 911. If the senior is not in imminent danger, call the Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, at 1-800-677-1116. The University of Rochester (2019) helps by listing signs to pay attention to that could alert us to elder abuse. They are:
- Crying and being unwilling to talk
- Showing signs of sadness or fear
- Continual broken bones, sores, burns, or bruises that are not explained
- Growing thin
- Not appearing well kept
- Poor hygiene
- Messy/dirty home
- Sleeping too much as if sedated
- Confusion, (University of Rochester, 2019)
Prevention is always best. Family members supporting seniors should not feel ashamed to take a step back and get outside opinions and/or help in order to find the best possible care for their loved ones. Caring for elders is not always easy in addition to maintaining jobs, other commitments, and/or caring for children. Life gets overwhelming for everyone and it’s important to know that help is out there and that many people struggle with similar issues.
Black (2008) explained that prevention for financial exploitation is also optimal. Help seniors to draft a specific power of attorney while they are still fully aware of the choices they are making, to be sure that they are given proper care and that their wishes are honored. It can also be wise to involve an impartial third party, someone who does not personally benefit from the legal proceedings, to decrease chances of abuse (Black, 2008).
Moreover, elder abuse is an uncomfortable topic that needs attention. All people deserve respect, safety and consideration. There are growing numbers of organizations and businesses out there to help people in making the best choices for their beloved seniors. Be aware of the seniors around you and protect seniors in your own family early. Sit down with elders in your family when they are still of sound mind and healthy to make proper arrangements for their care, wishes, and assets as they age.