Federal Study Reveals Extent of Unreported Elder Abuse

Benson & Bingham

The population of the United States is swiftly aging, and with an aging population come concerns about how older individuals will be cared for in their final years. Many older adults need assistance with day-to-day tasks or have specific medical needs that require daily attention. Others find themselves unable to remember who family members are or which daily tasks to complete due to Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions resulting in dementia. Many aging adults need some level of care; this can come in the form of a family member checking in, a nurse making occasional home visits, or being placed in a long-term care facility. While this care may be necessary, any care arrangement that relies on hired individuals to care for the elderly opens the older individual up to the possibility of elder abuse.

Because aging Americans – those who make up the so-called “Silver Tsunami” of Baby Boomers cresting into their twilight years – are such a vulnerable population, elder abuse is all too common. Elder abuse can take a variety of forms, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and healthcare fraud. Physical abuse occurs when someone is being physically hurt by hitting, pushing, slapping, or other physical contact. Emotional abuse can be a more subtle form of harm, and can include hurtful words, yelling, threatening, ignoring, or isolating an elderly person from friends and family members. Neglect occurs when an elderly person’s needs are not being met. Abandonment is an extreme form of neglect, when an elderly person is left alone without care for extended and even dangerous periods. Sexual abuse refers to situations in which an elderly person is forced to watch or participate in sexual acts. Financial abuse is any situation in which money or belongings are stolen from an elderly person by someone occupying a position of trust. Finally, healthcare fraud includes over-billing for medical services or charging for services that were not received.  [1]

According to the National Council on Aging, elder abuse is a common problem. Roughly 10 percent of all Americans over the age of 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse. This translates to roughly 5 million cases of elder abuse each year. Abusers can be male or female, and in more than half of all cases of elder abuse the perpetrator is a family member of the abused. The elderly are more vulnerable to abuse because they are often socially isolated and they are relatively likely to suffer from some form of mental impairment. [2]

It is clear that elder abuse is a serious problem for the aging population in the United States. It is even more concerning when one considers the fact that many cases of elder abuse go unreported. According to a recent study conducted and published by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in many cases of abuse or neglect that were serious enough to require medical attention, the incidents were not reported to law enforcement agencies. In fact, nursing homes failed to report nearly 1 in 5 potential cases of elder abuse to state inspection agencies. In some cases, an elderly person was treated at the emergency room and was then sent back to the same facility where the abuse or neglect occurred. [3]

Fortunately, there are many helpful warning signs to look out for when addressing the issue of elder abuse. These warning signs vary depending on the type of abuse being experienced. Warning signs of physical abuse include unexplained injuries (especially if they appear symmetrical), broken bones, a report of drug overdose or failure to take medication, broken glasses, signs of restraint, or a refusal on the part of the caregiver to let you see the elderly person. Signs of emotional abuse include threatening or controlling behavior on the part of the caregiver or behavior form the elderly person that would otherwise present signs of dementia, such as rocking or mumbling. Warning signs of sexual abuse include bruises or injuries around the private areas and torn or stained undergarments. Signs of neglect include weight loss, bed sores, unsanitary or unsafe living conditions, or an elder who is unbathed or clothed inappropriately. Signs of financial abuse include missing items, large withdrawals from the elderly person’s bank account, changes in wills, or financial activity that the elderly person could not have undertaken on their own. Signs of healthcare fraud include duplicate billings for a service, over-medication, or inadequate care. [4]

If you suspect that you or a loved one could be a potential victim of elder abuse, make sure that the elderly person maintains continued contact with trusted friends and family. Make sure that their financial and legal situation is in order, and if they need help arranging things, hire a professional to help with the paperwork. If you are unhappy with the care you or a loved one is receiving, speak up about the issue. Finally, if you feel that abuse has been suffered at the hands of a caregiver, contact the police to investigate and reach out to a personal injury attorney to make sure you understand your rights.

[1] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/elder-abuse#types

[2] https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/#intraPageNav1

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/06/12/731820729/reports-find-health-workers-still-are…

[4] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/elder-abuse-and-neglect.htm

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