You’re worried about your mother, uncle, or that sweet older neighbor down the street. Maybe the person is bruised, withdrawn, or agitated. Whatever the reason, you suspect mistreatment and you just don’t know what to say or do. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
Three to 5 percent of elderly people will be abused through neglect, theft, verbal and emotional abuse, or even physical attacks (the New York City Elder Abuse Center defines elder abuse as an act that causes harm or distress to an individual 60 years or older). Sadly, some reports estimate that only 1 in 24 of these cases gets reported, for a variety of reasons including complicated family situations, covert mistreatment, and the incapacity of some elders to share what’s really going on.
Whether loved ones live independently or in a caregiving community, follow these five commonsense tips to keep them out of harm’s way.
1. Look for Outward Signs
Keep your eyes peeled for a variety of indicators. Are there bruises or marks on your loved one’s body? Are you aware of what valuables your loved one possesses and do you have access to all financial and personal accounts so you can be a watchdog for financial and property theft? Have you witnessed changes in mood or behavior?
Sometimes asking directly doesn’t work, because of shame or confusion. “”Look for a change in behavior of the older adult,” says Joy Solomon, director and managing attorney for the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention in New York. “The more vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to be a victim, so especially look for changes when there’s a drop in your loved one’s acuity. This can include body language when certain people are mentioned or present.””
2. Create an In-Person Community of Support
Nothing replaces good old-fashioned time spent with the potential victim. Everyone’s busy, so your first thought might be to drop by and try to quickly assess how the elder is doing. But give it more time.
“It’s important to stay at least three days to get a sense of potential abuse,” says Frederick Hertz, an attorney, and mediator who works with cases of elder abuse. “It takes a day or two for the truth to come out.”
It’s important to create a larger community around your loved one, too. Don’t allow one friend, caregiver, or, in some cases, family members to isolate the older person. Engage a community to help out.
3. Look for Abuse That’s Covert as Well as Overt
Conventional wisdom states that abuse is always overt, but not so. It is sometimes covert and can be about withholding. For example, if an elder can walk with medication but the caregiver withholds that medication, that’s abuse. The caregiver wants the elder to remain incapacitated.
“Abuse is not always obvious,” says Solomon. “For example, instead of one big punch, it’s sometimes several smaller hits daily. It’s a pattern of behavior, which is harder to detect. Or with credit card theft, the thief may charge amounts that start small and gradually increase.”
4. Reach Out for Help
How should you act when you see signs of elder abuse? Alert authorities immediately or investigate on your own? “You need to respond on a case-by-case basis,” says Solomon. “In some communities, the police are very involved with their older residents and will respond right away.” Remember that police and district attorneys are there for crime prevention as well as actual crimes. One size doesn’t fit all. If you need to find local authorities to help you, visit the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).
5. Rely on Your Intuition
Finally, it’s important to trust your gut if you suspect abuse. “”In this day and age of advanced technology, people are less reliant on their own intuitive assessments of safety and well-being,” says Solomon. “In the case of human relations, if you think something is wrong, it’s probably wrong. It’s the old ‘I kind of thought something was off, but I didn’t want to stir the pot’ rationale. But if you wait, you’re doing damage control instead of prevention.”