Most caregivers find it gratifying and enriching to provide care for an elderly individual. Often times the responsibilities and demands of care giving, which often escalate as the elder’s condition deteriorates, can be extremely stressful. The stress of being a care giver can lead to mental and physical health problems that make caregivers feel burnt out, impatient, frustrated and sometimes angry. Many people are able to rationally deal with these emotions and seek help, but not always. If a person is unable or unwilling to work through their emotions, abuse and neglect can become a real issue.
Elder abuse is a hidden tragic secret for many but why is that? Often, older people who are victims of abuse are reluctant to speak out. The fear of repercussions may feel more over-bearing than the actual abuse they are subjected to. Shame or guilt may stop them from revealing their abuser who may be someone they love. Sometimes victims simply do not have the capacity to report it. Most elder abusers are not strangers. The National Center for Victims of Crime has reported that of alleged perpetrators of elder abuse, 33% were adult children, 22% were other family members, 16% were strangers, and 11% were spouses/intimate partners.
What to Look For
Every person responds differently to abuse and neglect. It is crucial to be observant and pay close attention to signs of abuse or neglect in the home due to the difference in responses. Abuse comes in many different forms. Some signs are obvious and some not so much. The key to identifying what may be abuse is to know your elder’s routine and personality as well as to notice if there are any unusual changes in behavior or demeanor.
Physical abuse is more easily noticed than some other forms of abuse. Bruises, welts, cuts and open wounds can be spotted during daily routine activities such as bathing and dressing. You may also notice injuries that are healing but were never treated. Rope marks or burns on hands and feet could mean that your loved one has been tied up or restrained. Another sign to look for is fear of another family member or caregiver. They may avoid eye contact, their eyes may dart or they may even startle easily or cringe. In some cases, the abuser may refuse visitors or not allow your loved one to be alone with visitors. If your loved one tells you that they are being physically hurt, take action!
Emotional abuse does not leave physical scars but it can strip away an older person’s self esteem, trust, and ability to love. Verbal assaults, threats, intimidation, harassment and isolation from regular activities, other family and friends are forms of emotional abuse. You may notice that they are upset and/or agitated more than normal. Your elderly loved one may show sudden apathy or withdrawal behavior. In some cases, they may begin to display symptoms of dementia such as rocking, biting, or even sucking. Do not disregard this unusual behavior as something else could be happening to cause it. Speak softly to them and ask them if they are okay. If a person is being emotionally abused it could just take a kind, warm heart to get them to speak up.
We don’t like to think about it, but sexual abuse happens. It is more common than we would like to think and goes largely unreported because the victim might be confused, ashamed or afraid of possible consequences of reporting the abuse. Tell tale physical signs of sexual abuse are:
- Bruises on or around the breasts or genitals
- Difficulty walking or standing
- Pain or itching in the genital area
- Torn, stained, or bloody underwear
- Sexually transmitted diseases or infections
Emotional signs of sexual abuse are:
- Scared or timid behavior
- Acting overly compliant
- Agitation or aggression
- Sudden change in personality
- Withdrawal and wanting to be alone
- Odd comments about sex or sexual behavior
The bottom line is that sexual abuse is an ugly thing and it does not need to happen. If you aren’t sure if an elder is being sexually abused but your instincts tell you something is off, get advice on what to do and how to approach them so they might feel safe enough to break their silence.