Elder Abuse

As more baby boomers enter retirement age, the number of older adults in the U.S. is surging — and so are the chances for some of those seniors to suffer some kind of abuse.

About one in 10 older adults is estimated to have experienced elder abuse, which can include physical, verbal, sexual and psychological mistreatment, along with neglect and financial exploitation, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. But there’s an even scarier stat: Much of that abuse goes unnoticed by friends, family members and even emergency room doctors.

One new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that elder abuse was diagnosed in just one in 7,700 ER visits by older adults — a number that shows the problem often goes undocumented.

The study’s researchers reported medical professionals often miss signs of abuse because these can be easily mistaken for other health issues that are common as one ages. For example, a bruise might be from falling down — or abuse. A patient who hasn’t been bathing might have been neglected by his or her caretaker — or could have been living alone and making those choices on his or her own accord. Older adults with failing memories might not be able to accurately remember and report being mistreatment.

Betty Robison, gerontology educator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said signs of abuse are often missed because older adults sometimes live isolated lives, whether they’re at home or in a care facility.

“Sometimes these things are just written off as aging, when it couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

The majority of elder abuse cases happen at the hands of family members, Robison said. Verbal abuse is more common than physical abuse, as is exploitation, such as using an older adult’s home or accessing his or her financial accounts without permission.

As technology makes it easier for others to gain access to important documents and accounts, Robison says it’s important for older adults to put financial plans and directives in place before they begin suffering memory issues or other health concerns that could limit their abilities to make decisions.

If people suspect that someone is taking advantage of a family member or friend, perhaps manipulating them to gain access to their bank accounts, Robison said it’s wise to report the problem to police.

“If something doesn’t seem right, report it,” she said. “You have a gut feeling for a reason.”

For family members of older adults in nursing homes or other types of care services, Robison recommends ensuring that in-home workers have undergone background checks. People will get a better sense of how their loved ones are being treated by checking in often and unexpectedly, she added.

Robison said she once walked in on her own mother being assaulted in a long-term care facility – and only discovered the abuse because she showed up at an unusual time, when the staff member didn’t expect visitors.

She suggests family members watch for any unexpected changes in older adults’ health, such as weight loss or new bruises. It’s important for both seniors and their family members and friends to be willing to report their suspicions, even if they fear retaliation.

“Sometimes people in their own neighborhoods are afraid to report it,” she said. “But things can be reported anonymously.”