The month of June marks Elder Abuse Awareness month, bringing attention to the protection of older adults, particularly keeping them safe from physical and mental harm. The movement began in 2006, with the launching of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15 by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the United Nations. The issue of elder abuse is often hidden or poorly discussed, but it is a growing problem that demands recognition and interference to prevent and stop it from happening.
In 2012, then Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, used her authority to establish the Administration for Community Living (ACL). Since its creation, ACL has continued to grow and gain new responsibilities. Their main mission is to help older adults and people with disabilities of all ages to live where and with whom they choose and fully participate in their communities. ACL has promoted public awareness of elder abuse and seeks to garner community support for the health and safety of the rising senior population.
Elder abuse can come in many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse. Or it may include various forms of neglect. Elder abuse may be a single act or repeated. The WHO shares some shocking statistics. Around 1 in 6 people aged 60 years or older experienced some form of abuse in community setting during the past year. In addition, rates of elder abuse are high in institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 2 in 3 staff reporting that they have committed some form of abuse in the past year. And rates of elder abuse have increased during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Elder abuse can seriously harm or scar older Americans. It may even cause or be the contributing cause of death in the worst of circumstances. And it is predicted to increase with rapidly growing aging populations. The problem is only expected to worsen as the global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion in 2050, per WHO.
WebMD shares that older Americans may exhibit different symptoms based on the type of abuse. For example, physical abuse may include unexplained injuries or broken bones, and patients may be fearful of seeing their doctor. Signs of emotional abuse may include sudden withdrawal, new fear of caregivers, changes in eating and sleeping and more. Nursing Home Abuse Center reports that emotional abuse may be one of the most common forms of elder mistreatment. Nearly 1 out of every 3 nursing home staff members admit to emotionally abusing residents, per a 2020 study as reported by WHO.
Neglect is a complex issue but is also considered a form of abuse. Self-neglect occurs when an elder person is unable to care for themselves due to advanced age, dementia, depression, disease, poverty, or isolation. For older adults who can make decisions on their own, there are organizations that can help troubleshoot problems. For example, if a qualifying individual is generally housebound and in need of nutrition, the organization Meals-On-Wheels can deliver nutritious meals to the home. For older adults who are no longer be able to make decisions or live at home independently, cases must be reported in the name of safety. Where there is self-neglect, an older adult may be evaluated to determine if they are safe to live alone. There are various ways to report abuse/neglect. One may notify family members who can intervene, contact the local ombudsman from a nursing home or senior assisted living facility, seeking out state protective services, or call the police for emergencies. One may also contact the National Elder Abuse hotline at (800) 222-8000 for a local number, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE.
Sadly, there are still people who look away in cases of abuse or neglect. In fact, a report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) discovered that for every case of emotional elder abuse reported, 12 are not. While this sounds hopeless, it is not. We can all do our part as good citizens to stop elder abuse. Learning to recognize the symptoms of senior abuse and neglect, paying attention to what’s happening around us, and by stepping up to help when needed, we can make a difference. It is critical that cases of elder abuse be reported promptly to prevent further harm to individuals. By acting, we can put a stop to physical and psychological harm and hold the abusers and facilities accountable.