According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice, 11% of the 5,000 adults age 60 and over who were surveyed reported some form of mistreatment. Of those who reported physical mistreatment, only 31% had reported it to authorities.
Social isolation is a known risk factor for elder abuse. The social distancing measures enacted to combat COVID-19, and recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for adults over the age of 65 to not leave their homes, are creating new levels of social isolation. These limits on in-person contact greatly limit caregivers’ ability to provide care, and limit opportunities for elder abuse to be detected.
Older adults, who often have chronic health conditions, may now find it more difficult to access health care and supplies needed to manage their conditions and stay healthy. These issues can lead to increased depression and anxiety, which is also known to make older adults more susceptible to abuse.
While many older adults typically turn to their health care providers for treatment of mental health symptoms, cancellations of face-to-face visits and unfamiliarity with technologies needed to conduct remote health care visits may be preventing older adults from receiving the care they need and may be increasing their vulnerability to abuse.
What exactly is elder abuse? Below are different types of elder abuse and what they are, as defined by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
Physical — This is the nonaccidental infliction of serious physical harm or the threat to do so where it is believed the person has the intent and capacity to carry out the threat.
Emotional — This is the nonaccidental infliction of serious emotional injury. There must be a relationship between the action and the impact on the emotional state or functioning of the elder.
Sexual — This is sexual assault, rape, sexual misuse, sexual exploitation or the threat of sexual abuse where it is believed the person has the intent and capacity to carry out the threat.
Neglect — There is caretaker neglect and self-neglect. Caretaker neglect is the failure or refusal to provide one or more basic necessities essential for physical well-being, which has caused, or will immediately result in, serious physical harm. Self-neglect is the failure or refusal by an elder to meet one or more basic necessities essential for physical well-being, which has caused, or will immediately result in, physical harm.
Financial exploitation — This is a nonaccidental act or omission by another person, without the consent of the elder, which results in a substantial monetary or property loss to the elder or gain to another individual.
Did you know anyone can report elder abuse?
Recognizing potential elder abuse can be tricky, but if you know what to look for, it is easier. There are general warning signs, such as noticing frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person and/or a change in personality or behavior in the elder. However, each of these types of abuse have their own warning signs:
Physical — Unexplained signs of injury (bruises, welts or scars); broken bones; drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly; broken eyeglasses or frames; or a caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone may all be signs of abuse.
Emotional — Seeing threatening, belittling or controlling caregiver behavior or behavior that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking or mumbling to oneself, may be signs of abuse.
Sexual — Physicians or nurses would most likely be the ones to notice these signs, such as bruises around breasts or genitals; unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding; or torn, stained or bloody underclothing.
Neglect — Signs would include unusual weight loss, malnutrition or dehydration; untreated physical problems; unsanitary living conditions; being left dirty or unbathed; unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather; or desertion of the elder at a public place.
Financial exploitation — You might notice significant withdrawals from financial accounts; sudden change in financial situation; items or cash missing from household; suspicious changes in wills or power of attorney; addition of names to the senior’s signature card; unpaid bills; or financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as ATM withdrawals of a senior that is bedridden.
To report suspected elder abuse, call the statewide 24-hour hotline at 1-800-922-2275. These calls will go directly to the Massachusetts-based call center, regardless of the location of the reporter or the elder within Massachusetts, and are referred to local protective services agencies, such as SeniorCare. For more information on elder abuse, visit SeniorCare’s website at seniorcareinc.org/protective-services.
Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.