Protecting Aging Loved Ones Against Abuse

What can I do to ensure my aging mom's safety and security? She lives alone, and I worry that she's becoming increasingly vulnerable to abuse from outsiders. How can I tell if she's in any immediate danger?

Abuse of the elderly – often under-recognized and unreported – is widespread in the United States. Nearly a half million seniors in domestic settings are abused, neglected, or experience self-neglect – the loss of ability or will to care for oneself – according to a recent government study. Yet only one in five of those cases is ever reported.

One reason for this is that elder abuse is often hard to detect. Many older people are reluctant to talk about private situations. If they’re mistreated, they may be hesitant to tell anyone, fearing that if they make a fuss, they’ll only be rocking the boat and creating further loss of care, food, home, independence or money. Sometimes their abusers actually threaten them to keep quiet. In other cases, seniors may not even realize that they’re being exploited or neglected. They may have grown accustomed to being left for long periods of time, to meals gradually diminishing in nutritional content, to being handled roughly or spoken to harshly. They may be unaware that their financial resources are being drained away by a caregiver.

Our advice to you is to be aware and alert. Because abuse can be an invisible problem, you may need to question your mom frequently about the details of her day-to-day circumstances and the kind of care she’s receiving. Mix in questions like these with more positive and constructive types of conversation. This may open a crack in the door for your mother to confess a fear or express a concern. If you don’t do this, she may not wish to bother you and you will never know.

If you have reasons to believe that your mom is being subjected to some form of mistreatment, you’ll need to step up to the plate and address the situation. It’s perfectly all right to confront the people who are responsible for her care. The easiest way to begin is to approach the person you suspect of abusing or neglecting her – perhaps a relative, a part-time caregiver or an in-home nurse – with a general expression of concern. Don’t make accusations. Instead, ask this individual, “Can I help you?” or “Do you need a break?” If nothing else, such a question acts as a warning and a reminder to the abuser that things are not as they should be. Remember, most abusers are not viciously or maliciously mistreating elders. If a caregiver is feeling overwhelmed and tired, she may confide in you. Or she may recognize that she needs sleep, recreation or relief – and begin to seek it.

As far as possible, stay in close contact with your mother – your presence and involvement in her life is her best protection and defense. When you can’t be on the scene, keep close tabs on her through neighbors, friends and others who see her on a regular basis. The people who provide services for the elderly are usually the first to suspect and report abuse or neglect. These include housekeepers, gardeners, home health-care workers, and social workers.

It would also be a good idea to consult a medical professional – a doctor, a nurse, or a home health-care worker. Not only are they trained to recognize the symptoms of abuse, but they also have unparalleled opportunities to win the confidence of their patient and indirectly encourage her to talk about abusive situations or potential dangers. They also know how to ask subtle but valuable questions, probing a senior’s fears, the satisfaction level of her relationships, and the possibility of self-neglect. If possible, get your mom to a physician and encourage her not to be put off by the doctor’s questions. They’re often just a way to screen for abuse with people who may never raise the subject themselves.

If you have further questions about any of this information and would like to discuss it at greater length with a member of our staff, don’t hesitate to call and speak with one of our counselors.

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Caring for Aging Parents

Caregiver Action Network

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

National Center on Elder Abuse

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Elderly Care

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