We trust nurses, caretakers, and other authorities to take care of our elderly, who often can’t take care of themselves. That’s part of what makes elder abuse such a heinous crime. When these people in positions of power use their power to exploit and/or harm the people they’re supposed to care for, they deserve to see justice.
Unfortunately, elder abuse can be hard to identify. Abuse often happens behind the scenes, where it’s least likely to be seen. And many elderly patients may have difficulty communicating their thoughts and experiences due to afflictions like dementia.
So how can you spot elder abuse before it’s too late?
The Signs of Elder Abuse
Elder abuse comes in many forms. Physical abuse involves direct physical contact. Sexual abuse involves sexual exploitation. Financial abuse involves theft or manipulation for financial gain. And psychological abuse involves emotional hardship and unnecessary stress.
In any case, these signs of elder abuse should stand out to you:
- Direct complaints. The most obvious sign of elder abuse is a direct complaint. If a person tells you they’re being hurt by the staff or that their needs aren’t being addressed, it’s important to take them seriously – and write down or record what they have to say. Oftentimes, patients are unable to communicate or afraid to speak out against their abusers, so you can’t rely on this as your primary way to detect abuse. Additionally, some patients suffer from delusions and paranoia due to conditions like dementia – so not every complaint is a definitive sign of elder abuse. Still, any complaint should warrant closer inspection and serious consideration.
- Bruises, cuts, or other injuries. Look for abnormal physical marks on the elder in question. Bruises and cuts can happen naturally, but if they occur frequently, it could be a bad sign. If you notice any bleeding that hasn’t been addressed or can’t be reasonably explained, take action. Bed sores are an almost certain sign of neglect or abuse.
- Changes in mood or behavior. Pay attention to changes in the person’s mood or behavior. Does this person seem depressed and lethargic suddenly? Do they seem anxious and afraid? Does their mood seem to change frequently and without warning? Any abnormalities here could be a sign of abuse behind the scenes.
- Signs of restraint. Look for any signs that this person has been restrained in some way. You may notice bruising around the wrists and/or ankles, or you may see rope or cuff marks.
- Lack of interest or enjoyment. Does this person show a sudden or uncharacteristic lack of interest or enjoyment in typical activities? Do they seem withdrawn from social gatherings and group activities? Are they cold and unresponsive when you come to visit? Victims of elder abuse often grow to be detached.
- Hazardous or unsafe living conditions. You can also spot elder abuse in the form of hazardous or unsafe living conditions. For example, dirty bedsheets, dangerous objects, a leaking roof, low lighting, a lack of handrails, and wet floors can all be signs of neglect.
- Missing medical aids. Many elderly patients rely on important medical aids to function, such as dentures, hearing aids, glasses, or walkers. If these aids seem to be missing, or if you suspect they’ve been stolen, broken, or withheld, it’s a probable sign of elder abuse.
What to Do If You Suspect Elder Abuse
So what steps can you take if you suspect elder abuse?
- Talk to the abused party privately. Try to talk to the abused party about the situation. If they can speak clearly and directly, get their statements on record. Ask them about their living situation – even if it’s hard to talk about. Let them know that you’re here to help.
- Avoid informing staff of your suspicions. Some people are tempted to begin berating or attacking the staff responsible for the abuse, but it’s often better to lay low. If alerted to your suspicions, they may operate more stealthily, making it harder to catch them and hold them accountable for their crimes.
- Gather any evidence you can. Begin gathering evidence in any way you can. Take photos. Record interviews. Write down the dates and times you noticed something “off.”
- Talk to a lawyer. Make sure you talk to a lawyer who specializes in elder abuse. Chances are, the initial consultation will be free. Your lawyer will be able to provide you with specific professional advice on how to proceed.
Elder abuse isn’t especially common, but it’s not rare either. If you have a loved one in a nursing home or under the care of a professional caretaker, it’s important to be aware of these elder abuse signs – and be prepared to take action if necessary.