According to the World Health Organization, one in six people older than 60 experienced some form of abuse in community settings last year. Sadly, elder abuse is a widely experienced, though underreported, problem facing millions of seniors worldwide. This abuse can occur in a care facility, in public, or even in their own homes. And, it can have long-reaching and debilitating consequences on its victims.

You can take an active role in preventing and stopping elder abuse. But to do that, you might need a little background first. What constitutes elder abuse and how do you identify when there’s a problem?

What Is Senior Abuse?

Elder abuse can take many forms, which is a reason why it can be difficult to identify. Generally speaking, there are six types of elder abuse: physical, neglect, abandonment, emotional, financial, and sexual.

There are six types of elder abuse: physical, neglect, abandonment, emotional, financial, and sexual.

Physical abuse is when someone causes physical harm to a senior through hitting, pushing, punching, etc. Neglect and abandonment are two types of abuse during which someone ignores a senior’s needs, even to the extent of leaving them to fend for themselves entirely. Abuse can affect more than a senior’s physical well-being, too.

For instance, emotional abuse causes harm through yelling insults, threatening, or keeping seniors isolated from others. And, financial abuse refers to taking advantage of seniors’ finances. (This can manifest as someone taking a senior’s Social Security or retirement benefits or forging financial documents like checks, wills, or bank account details. It can even be old-fashioned theft.) Sadly, the final type of abuse is sexual, which is when a caregiver forces a senior into sexual acts or viewing said acts.

The Signs of Elder Abuse to Watch For

Now that you know what constitutes senior abuse, how can you spot it? Short of seeing the abuse occur, it may not always be obvious, especially if you’re not intimately privy to the senior’s situation. For example, if the senior is your friend or an aunt, you may be close enough to the situation to notice some signs, but it may not be inherently clear.

You can spot some forms of abuse, like physical abuse, via clear signs, like bruises and injuries like broken bones or burns. Other signs may require you to look a bit closer, though. If you notice a senior has trouble sleeping, appears depressed, can’t focus, or displays unexplained weight loss, it’s possible they could be experiencing abuse. You should also watch for other classic signs of trauma, like if they become withdrawn or isolated, start avoiding activities they used to love, or displaying sudden changes in their personality. A decline in someone’s hygiene, appearance, or living conditions, lack of supplies (e.g., groceries or medicine), or physical signs like bed sores can point to abuse like neglect or abandonment as well.

You should watch for classic signs of trauma, like becoming withdrawn or isolated, avoiding activities they used to love, or displaying sudden personality changes.

Financial abuse can be more difficult to spot. Specifically, it may require an in-depth knowledge of a senior’s finances. If a senior presents a lack of understanding or knowledge of financial decisions, they could be a target for financial abuse. If a senior appears to make several suspicious banking changes, like changing who has access to their account or making large purchases or odd withdrawals, these are also signs there may be financial abuse. Finally, financial abuse could be happening if you notice sudden or significant changes in a senior’s spending behaviors.

What to Do If You Suspect Abuse

Elder abuse is a serious problem around the world, and a large reason for this is the lack of people reporting instances. If you suspect abuse, it’s essential that you react to stop it. Talk to the senior one-on-one and ask them if something’s wrong. Assure them you want to help, and that if someone is hurting them, you won’t tell the abuser that you know. If the senior comes to you with their worries, take them — especially claims of abuse — seriously.

If the senior comes to you with their worries, take them — especially claims of abuse — seriously.

Regardless of how you find out about an occurrence, it’s essential that you notify the proper authorities. One great place to get help is the National Center on Elder Abuse. They have resources to help you know how and where to report abuse. Another way they help is the Eldercare Locator, which helps people find nearby senior services. Your local police office may also be able to handle abuse, though you may want to try the other two outlets first. If there’s a threat of imminent danger, we recommend calling 911 immediately.

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Elder abuse is a truly sad crime that is both underreported and uncomfortably common. If you notice any of the signs in a friend or family member, reach out to help them find the respite and aid they may need. Together, we can all take major steps to wiping out elder abuse in our communities.

Further Reading

The New Yorker — How the Elderly Lose Their Rights