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Practical Caregiving

Guarding Against Elder Abuse is Everyoneís Duty

By Jean Donahue

When I was taking care of Mom and Dad, there was this constant, unspoken worry that someone would mistreat them. I just couldnít be there 24 hours a day to take care of them. I thought I would be able to tell if something happened while I was gone, but I have since found that I didnít know enough to question some of the abuses that happen to older people.

Unfortunately, elder abuse is very common. Please do what you need to do to protect your loved one from any type of abuse. If you suspect anything at all, call your state abuse hotline IMMEDIATELY. They will help you determine if there is actually abuse and what other steps you should take.

Maureen B. in Connecticut emailed me about her father feeling he needed to give money to a woman, when he really didnít have it to give Ė and she didnít deserve it. Maureen knew the woman was using her father, but didnít fully realize that in doing so, she was actually abusing her father, who feared what would happen if he didnít give her money. This is her reply after she contacted the elder abuse hotline in Connecticut. Friends, there is help!

ďThank you SO much for your reply! Thank you for the link to the CT Elder Abuse Hotline. I called there today and they referred me to "Protective Services for the Elderly" out of Danbury. They told me they will be able to send out a social worker and investigate this girl and the situation with my Dad.... Since Dad is scared to press charges (with all the new information we have, the police department said today they may be able to get an arrest warrant if he files a complaint), they said there still may be a way to file charges or at least intimidate the girl from contacting my Dad.... He is definitely afraid of her as he asked me today to buy him mace!

I cannot tell you how many searches I made before I found your website. There should be an easy way to find information as valuable as your column provides.Ē

Well, weíre all certainly trying here at, Maureen. And thanks for writing!

Just what, exactly, is abuse, anyway? Abuse is when your loved one is being mistreated, either intentionally or unintentionally through neglect. The elderly may be unaware of the abuse or too afraid to say anything. In the case of Maureenís father, someone was intimidating him, so he felt it necessary to give her money even when there was no reason for him to do so. This abuse is harassment, or implied threat. Letís look at all the ways people abuse the frail elderly and what you should watch for.

First, donít discount your loved oneís story of being abused just because you believe they arenít always aware of their surroundings. Check it out. Also, if you notice or question anything that is unusual, check it out further. That warning may be the only sign you will see. At the end of this column, I list the elder abuse hotline information you should contact as your first line of defense. They will guide you to other places for help.

More useful information:

Physical abuse is the most obvious form of abuse we hear about. It causes pain and/or injury to another person. It may involve hitting that person, pushing them, force-feeding them beyond their capacity to eat, withholding food, improper use of physical restraints or medications, withholding medical care, forced sexual activity, and anything else the twisted human mind can dream up.

Signs you should watch for: bruises and welts anywhere on the body, broken bones, sprains, dislocations, open wounds, untreated injuries in various stages of healing, bed sores that donít heal, internal injuries/bleeding, broken glasses or frames, signs of being punished or restrained, unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding, stained or bloody underclothing, lab reports of medication overdose or underdose, your loved oneís sudden change in behavior, the professional caregiver's refusal to allow visitors to see your loved one alone, your loved oneís report of being abused.

Emotional (or psychological) abuse causes mental trauma. Threats, humiliation, ridicule, putting down, being overly critical, insults, destroying something important to the elderly, isolating the person from family, friends and other people in general Ė these all are forms of emotional abuse.

Signs you should watch for: being emotionally upset or agitated, being extremely withdrawn, non-communicative or non-responsive, unusual behavior usually attributed to dementia (e.g., sucking, biting, rocking), and an elder's report of being verbally or emotionally mistreated.

Financial abuse (like Maureenís father) is the unauthorized use of the elderlyís money, assets or property. It occurs when someone coerces the elderly to give them money and/or property or access to their credit cards or their checking account. It also occurs when someone coerces the elderly to change their will, give power of attorney under duress, to buy something they donít want or need and many other ways to get their money.

Signs you should watch for: sudden changes in their bank account or banking practices, unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder, unusual ATM card withdrawals, abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents, unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions, substandard care being provided, unpaid bills, discovery of an elder's signature being forged for financial transactions or for the titles to his/her possessions, sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder's affairs and possessions, unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family, the provision of services that are not necessary; and an elder's report of financial abuse.

Neglect occurs when the elderlyís basic needs are not provided. It can be intentional or unintentional, but the result is the same. Neglect can include physical, emotional and financial abuse. When the elderly doesnít have glasses to see, dentures to help them eat, doesnít go to a doctor when they should, arenít clean, are left alone most of the time, or donít have something else they need, they are being neglected. If an elderly person is living alone, they may not realize they are not taking care of themselves very well Ė thatís self-neglect, a different but still serious problem.

Signs you should watch for: dehydration, malnutrition, untreated bed sores, poor personal hygiene, unattended or untreated health problems, hazardous or unsafe living condition/arrangements; unsanitary and unclean living conditions, an elder's report of being mistreated.

If you think there is a possibility of abuse with your loved one, check it out immediately. Donít hesitate. Donít dismiss it as unlikely. You can do something about it. It can literally be a matter of life and death.