From all outside appearances, 80-year-old Shirley seemed well cared for by the niece who had moved in with her a few months earlier. She even told her friends how she was enjoying the company and the help around the house.
Shirley had always been frugal with her credit cards, using them only when needed. So when the bank called to ask her about some recent, unusual charges on her account, she was alarmed. She was even more surprised to find out that the purchases were made by the niece she had welcomed into her home.
Throughout June, Home Helpers and other agencies dedicated to preserving the safety and dignity of seniors are working to cast a light on the many forms of elder abuse, some of which aren’t visible to the naked eye. Elder abuse can take many forms. It’s a term used to describe intentional physical, emotional, sexual or financial mistreatment of a person 60 or older.
While it is not uncommon, it is hard to know just how prevalent elder abuse is in the United States. That’s because it is believed that abuse often goes unreported. As in Shirley’s case, abuse often is suffered at the hands of a trusted loved one or someone on whom the senior relies for help.
A senior might also feel hopeless and unable to ask for help, fearing abandonment or retaliation by the relative or caregiver who is mistreating them. At the very least, the victim might fear losing the companionship and help of the person who is mistreating them.
Look Out and Speak Up
Whether you are a caregiver, an acquaintance, a loved one or a neighbor, it is everyone’s responsibility to keep an eye out for signs of mistreatment.
“Elder abuse is not a family matter that is ‘none of my business,’ ” said Mary Doepke, RN, owner of Home Helpers. “It is a crime whose victims often have more concern about the consequences for the abuser than they do for their own safety.”
Home Helpers’ caregivers are trained to spot the signs of elder abuse and required by law to report them. Doepke encourages anyone who sees signs of abuse to do the same.
“If you suspect an older person is experiencing any of the signs and symptoms listed above, turn it over to the professionals and let them investigate the situation,” Doepke said.
The National Center on Elder Abuse lists the following situations as possible signs of elder abuse:
Physical Abuse: bruises, black eyes, welts, broken bones, broken eyeglasses, sudden change in behavior, refusal by the caregiver to allow visitors or for visitors to spend time alone with the senior
Sexual Abuse: bruises around the breasts or genitals, venereal disease, unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding, torn or bloody underclothing
Emotional or Psychological Abuse: unusual behavior, withdrawal from social interaction, agitation
Neglect: dehydration or malnutrition, untreated bed sores, poor hygiene, unsafe living conditions
Financial or Material Exploitation: withdrawal or transfer of large sums of money, abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents, unexplained disappearance of possessions or money, forged signature on checks or other documents
Elder abuse also can be a sin of omission. Failing to help a senior who is not taking care of himself, also known as self neglect, is a form of abuse that can happen on its own or as a result of other forms of mistreatment. It’s estimated that self neglect plays a role in about half of all cases of elder abuse.
Signs of self neglect might include dehydration or malnutrition, unsafe living conditions, poor personal hygiene and untreated medical conditions.
No matter what form elder abuse takes, it is up to everyone to do something about it. And doing something starts with a simple phone call.
In DuPage County, suspected cases of elder abuse should be reported to DuPage County Human Services at (800) 942-9412. In Cook County, call Aging Care Connections at (708) 354-1323. Or anyone in Illinois can call (800) 252-8966.