Elder abuse is an injustice and an epidemic that we all need to prevent and address. That’s why June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Month.

The mistreatment or harming of older people occurs in private residences and at long-term care facilities, in relationships where there is an expectation of trust or when an older person is targeted based on age or disability.

Elder abuse takes on many forms — physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, digital, neglect and financial exploitation. Often, multiple forms of abuse occur at the same time. It can happen one time or as a repeated pattern.

Elder abuse occurs in every community, regardless of socio-economics, race, religion or education.

It may even exist in your own neighborhood.

Most victims don’t tell. As a result, elder abuse is a hidden societal problem and a public health crisis. It is believed that for every 24 cases, only 1 gets reported.

In 2015, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention reported that an older adult is abused every five seconds, which equates to 1 in 10 Marylanders over the age of 60.

The harsh reality is that two-thirds of elder abusers are close family members: 47 percent are adult children and grandchildren, while 19 percent are spouses and partners.

Most victims live in their own homes. And in this era of COVID-19, with its necessary social distancing, shuttered senior centers, adult day care and outpatient programs, the most vulnerable among us are left isolated and without access to emotional supports.

While the pandemic has helped shine a light on our need to focus on the care and protection of our vulnerable elders, make no mistake about it – socially connected, currently employed, independent, physically and mentally healthy older adults are being abused.

SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders, a program of CHANA, strives to break the silence. But we cannot do it alone. Community and family members have a mitigating role to play.

Elder abuse can be prevented if we work together to create a stronger society that values and supports all of us as we age.

How can you help? Don’t be a bystander. Statistics show that 15 percent of bystanders intervene, and when they do, they succeed within 10 seconds of the intervention.

We all have an obligation to learn what elder abuse is, how to recognize the signs and what to do if we suspect it might be happening.

Here are three steps:

1) Believe

If you don’t believe that family members would abuse their parents or grandparents, elder abuse will remain a “hidden” epidemic.

If you don’t believe that older women are being sexually abused, the creation of laws and systems protecting older victims will never be prioritized.

Ageism is a discriminating factor that leads to wearing blinders that older people are being abused. To cultivate a sense of bystander responsibility, nurture a shift in attitude and increase the likelihood of intervention.

You can begin by filling in the blank on a few statements, such as: “To me, being old means …”; “The thing I like least about old people is …”; and “When I think of old people, I …”

Once you’ve gotten in touch with your feelings and beliefs about older people, and accepted the fact that older people are being abused, if you see someone whom you think might be the victim of abuse, you could ask them about it.

If they tell you that indeed they are being abused, believe them!

2) Be a Preventionist

You cannot always know who is being abused. The best prevention is education. Learn about the warning signs of elder abuse.

Among others, they include:
• Unexplained injuries;
• Bruises, burns, bites;
• Weight loss;
• Untreated medical problems;
• Expensive gifts to family members, caregivers or new “best friends”;
• Overdue bills; lack of awareness of expenses; sudden anxiety about money;
• Poor hygiene;
• Fear, anxiety, depression, withdrawal;
• Others speaking on the older adult’s behalf;
• Increasing isolation;
• Abuser discredits the older adult, making them appear incapable;
• The elder informs you of an abusive situation.

3) Recognize Warning Signs

If you suspect someone you know is being abused and they deny it, there are vital reasons.

The crucial reason that elder abuse victims don’t tell is fear of retaliation and even worse harm. Among several other critical motivations is the fear of not being believed.

If they do have the courage to tell despite feelings of self-blame and shame, not being believed may leave them feeling even more isolated and hopeless.

To learn more about types and signs of elder abuse go to: ncea.acl.gov/Suspect-Abuse/Abuse-Types.aspx

You can also learn about the warning signs of an abuser. Examples include that the abuser:
• Is verbally abusive to the older adult, but charming to everyone else;
• Says the victim is “difficult” and may try to convince others that the older adult is incompetent;
• Is overly attentive to the older adult, which may mask controlling behaviors;
• Controls the older adult’s activities and outside contacts;
• Talks about the older adult as if she or he was not there;
• Threatens suicide;
• Sabotages the older person’s efforts to do such things as attend faith-based events; go to medical appointments; utilize devices such as a wheelchair, cane or false teeth.

It is up to all of us to watch for signs that something isn’t right. If it feels like something might be happening, don’t brush it off. Trust your gut.

Most importantly, don’t act alone. Respect the privacy of the older adult and don’t tell more people than necessary. Connect them to professionals who have expertise in elder abuse response. Individualized and practical planning is central every step of the way for an older adult to get to safety, whether they’re planning to remain in their relationship, planning to leave or have already left.

Safety planning is both a science and an art, and includes steps that might not ordinarily be considered. Talk to an expert with experience in safety planning.

To learn more about elder abuse and World Elder Abuse Awareness Month, visit ncea.acl.gov/. To learn more about SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders, visit chanabaltimore.org/find-help/elder-abuse/.

Jacke L. Schroder

Jacke L. Schroeder, LCSW-C, is the director of SAFE: Stop Abuse of Elders, a program of CHANA.

Schroeder will be among the presenters at “Protecting Older Adults from Identity Theft and Scams,” a series on July 9 and July 16 from 11 a.m. to noon via Zoom video conferencing. Attendees will learn the most common tactics used by scammers to target older adults, as well as the steps they can take to protect themselves and the people they care about. Other presenters will include  Jeff Karberg and Jeannine Robinson-Hurley of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General. 

The event, co-sponsored by Jewish Community Services, CHANA, the Edward A. Myerberg Center, CHAI, and AgeWell Baltimore, agencies of The Associated, is free and open to the community. To register, visit www.myerberg.org/upcoming-live-events/ or call 410-843-7457. 

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