Elder abuse is difficult to talk about. We don’t like to think about it, we may not be sure exactly what it is, and more than likely, we may not know what to do about it.
The observance of the fifth annual “World Elder Abuse Awareness” Day on June 15 offers the opportunity to become acquainted with the problem of elder abuse and ways for individuals and the community to help.
Living in Maine, identified as the oldest state in the nation, and in Lincoln County, statistically identified as the oldest county in the state; we are in the epicenter of great change and challenge as the baby boomers age into their elder years.
What is elder abuse? By definition, it refers to any knowing, intentional or negligent act by a caregiver, family member or any other person, which causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. It may take the form of abuse that is physical, emotional or sexual; neglect at the hands of someone else or self-neglect; abandonment or financial exploitation.
Examples of physical abuse may include: hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, shaking, slapping, kicking, pinching and burning. Inappropriate use of drugs and physical restraints, force-feeding and physical punishment of any kind are also examples of physical abuse.
Examples of emotional abuse include: verbal assaults, insults, threats, intimidation, humiliation and harassment. Also, treating an older person like an infant, and isolating an older person from family and friends are examples of emotional/psychological abuse.
Examples of sexual abuse may include, but are not limited to: unwanted touching, all types of sexual assault such as rape, sodomy, coerced nudity, sexually explicit photographing; being forced to view pornography.
An elder may suffer from neglect at the hands of another who refuses to provide an older person with the necessities of life such as food, water, clothing, shelter (including heat and running water), medicine (eyeglasses, dentures, hearing aids, walkers), comfort and personal safety.
When a mentally competent elder consciously deprives himself or herself of the above necessities which then threatens his or her health and safety, it is called self-neglect.
Abandonment is defined as the desertion of an older person by an individual who has assumed responsibility for providing care for that elder, such as the desertion of that person at a hospital, nursing home, a public location or the elder’s own home.
Acts of financial exploitation might include: cashing an elder’s check without permission, forging an older person’s signature, misusing or stealing an older person’s money, coercing or deceiving an older person into signing any legal document, such as a contract or will.
Elder abuse knows no boundaries. It affects men and women over the age of 60 from all socio-economic levels in every community in the state, people of all races, all religions, all levels of education, people who are gay, lesbian or straight. Many are at risk but statistics show that victims are most likely to be women over the age of 75 who suffer from a mental or physical illness and who are dependent on their caregiver for basic needs.
Every 2.7 minutes, another older Mainer becomes a victim of elder abuse. This translates into an estimated 14,000 episodes of physical abuse, neglect or financial exploitation each year; it is suspected that as many as 85 percent of these cases go unreported.
Who are the perpetrators of elder abuse? In most cases, they are family members acting in the capacity of caregivers. It is believed that spouses are the largest group of perpetrators, followed closely by adult children and other family members. Others who abuse older persons in their care are hired caregivers as well as legal guardians, those with Power of Attorney and Administrators of a Trust.
What are some of the warning signs of elder abuse? Elder abuse in Maine is a silent and invisible epidemic largely because 95 percent of it happens in private, at home, behind closed doors. Those who have contact with isolated, house-bound seniors such as home health personnel, physical therapists, meals on wheels delivery volunteers, neighbors and members of the clergy are often in a position to notice the warning signs in time to help.
Some troubling indicators of physical abuse might be: poorly explained and frequent bruising, black eyes, welts, lacerations, burns, broken bones; also broken eyeglasses, dentures, hearing aids. Unexplained withdrawal from any normal routine, missed or canceled appointments, sudden changes in financial status could all be red flags and cause for concern.
Any of these signs alone may not be indicative of a greater problem, but if a pattern emerges, and the incidents increase with time, it is never inappropriate to ask questions to try to find out what is really going on.
Elder abuse, like other acts of domestic violence, happens in silence and isolation. Shame, guilt, denial and fear all cooperate to keep victims from speaking out against their abusers, who as we know are most often their only link to needed basic support.
All of us can be the eyes and ears of the wider community as we interact with our elder friends, neighbors, patients, clients, parishioners, and loved ones who are unable to get out and about as often as they once did and may need help.
It is the responsibility of all of us to keep our most vulnerable citizens safe. If there are enough warning signs to suspect that some form of abuse is happening, there are many local resources:
Adult Protective Services for reports of abuse: 1-800-624-8404; local law enforcement-sheriffs and police: 911; Legal Services for the Elderly: 1-800-750-5353; Spectrum Generations, Damariscotta: 563-1363 and New Hope for Women: 1-800-522-3304.
There is no excuse for elder abuse.
Break the silence; make the call.