June 15th, the day widely recognized as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, is fast approaching. If you work or live in any situation where elders are even peripherally involved, this is a good time to remind people that elders can be vulnerable to many types of abuse and we have a responsibility to protect them.
It’s natural to think that abuse is physical, and often it is. However, elder abuse can also be emotional or financial. Telling people they are worthless is abuse. Not providing good care for an elder because the family wants to protect what they view as their inheritance is abuse. Withholding food or medication is abuse. It goes without saying that hitting, pinching or other physical aggression is abuse.
The general public often considers nursing homes to be the most likely place for elder abuse, and yes, unfortunately, abuse does happen in some nursing homes. However, there are many people around to monitor the residents in a nursing home. Abuse is certainly possible in nursing homes – indeed, it does happen – but it may not be as easy to hide as abuse within the family home.
First, let me caution you to be careful of falsely accusing a person or facility of abuse. While we all need to speak up in suspected abuse cases, we can’t accuse someone without a significant reason. For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease are very vulnerable to abuse, but they also can feel they are being abused if their caregiver even tries to give them a bath, simply because the person with the disease doesn’t understand what is happening.
If you have a neighbor who is caring for a vulnerable elder in the home, try to get to know the caregivers, and the person with the disease, if possible. That way you’ll have a frame of reference should you see or hear something that makes you wonder about abuse. If you know the elder has times where he or she wails loudly, and you understand that this is part of the disease, you’ll realize that abuse isn’t bringing on this heartbreaking cry. However, if you have no clue about the people who are caring for the elder, you’ll likely feel obligated to report them. The same kind of thinking goes for a nursing home. If you are a visitor, try to get to know the people, both residents and staff. Get a feel for how they treat each other and you’ll likely have a framework for making a decision about possible abuse.
What about if you do suspect abuse?
If your neighbor who is caring for an aging parent is heard screaming at the elder or taunting him or her, that is emotional abuse. If an elder is bruised, seems overly drugged, is often hungry or doesn't appear to be getting medical care, you have a right to suspect physical and possible financial abuse. In these cases you need to contact authorities. If the problem is urgent, call the police. If you are simply wondering if a welfare check should be made, you can call your local social services.
Helping family caregivers
When it comes to families in the home trying to care for an elder, try to understand that the caregivers are likely under a lot of stress. If you know them to be basically good people, but you are beginning to wonder if they are pushed so far that some type of abuse could eventually erupt, see if you can befriend them by offering some respite help. Even if you offer to run some errands it could lighten their load.
Many people bring an elder into their homes with no real knowledge of what lies ahead. If you sense stress as you visit with the caregivers, you can suggest that they contact the National Alzheimer’s Association for guidance and support. In-home health care agencies can offer the caregivers breaks, as well. The National Family Caregiver Support Program, found on most state websites, can give them potential resources for more help.
Try to be a friend to your caregiving neighbors without interfering. They likely are already stressed and rushed for time. Offer friendship and help if they need it without sounding critical. However, if you already know that there is likely abuse, don’t hesitate to get help for the vulnerable elder. It is possible that you are the only caring advocate they may have.
Published On: June 11, 2013