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How to Recognize and Prevent Elder Abuse

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Author name: Lee Health


Elder abuse Graphic

Too often, we look away. We don’t want to get involved. Growing up, we may have been taught to “mind our own business” or to “respect other people’s privacy.”

But National Elder Abuse Prevention Month in June serves as a call to action for us, our communities, and organizations to understand, recognize, and report elder abuse when suspected.

Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, that causes or creates a risk of harm to adults over the age of 60, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most often, these events occur while under the direct care or supervision of family members or caregivers, says Tracey Walton, a trauma injury prevention educator with Lee Health Trauma Services.

“Offenders are often individuals the elder person trusts,” Walton says. “Elder abuse can mean physical and psychological harm, but it also may manifest through financial exploitation and theft.”

An estimated 5 million older adults are abused, neglected, or exploited every year. Elder financial abuse and exploitation annually robs older Americans of an estimated $2.6 billion—money that could be used for paying for basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care.

 According to Walton, elder abuse can include:

  • Physical abuse
    • Illness, pain, injury, or death
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional or psychological abuse
    • Verbal or nonverbal behavior that causes the elder to fear for their safety and/or physical and mental wellbeing
  • Financial abuse
    • The misuse, unauthorized, or illegal use of the elder’s funds
  • Neglect
    • Failure to meet the elder’s basic needs: food, shelter, water, clothing, hygiene and/or medical care

Nearly 1 in 10 American senior citizens are abused or neglected each year. Yet, only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse is brought to the attention of authorities, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Community Living.

The issue is a global one, Walton stresses. “The global number of elderly people is expected to almost double in the next 30 years, growing from 1 in 11 in 2019 to 1 in 6 by 2050,” Walton says, citing a United Nations Population Report.

“Elder abuse is a serious worldwide social problem that tends to hide from public view because it’s considered a private matter,” Walton says. “It’s underreported because people who are being abused find it difficult to tell anyone because they’re ashamed and maybe even afraid. Also, elderly people want to avoid reporting their own family members.

“We have to protect the rights of older people in our community who are unable or unwilling to advocate for themselves.”

Walton says that successful elder abuse prevention, detection, and intervention starts with awareness.

“In terms of spotting potential emotional abuse, we should try to notice when people aren’t their normal selves,” Walton says. “If someone you know has become suddenly withdrawn, sad, or upset, or acting differently from how they normally behave, that’s something to take a look at.”

Below are some ways to prevent elder abuse:

  • Listen to older adults and their caregivers to understand their challenges and provide support
  • Report abuse or suspected abuse to Adult Protective Services
  • Educate oneself and others about how to recognize and report elder abuse
  • Learn how the signs of elder abuse differ from the normal aging process
  • Check-in often on older adults who may have few friends and family members
  • Provide over-burdened caregivers with support such as: help from friends, family, or local relief care groups

To report possible abuse:

TEL: 1-800-962-2873

TTY: 711 or 1-800-955-8771


To report an allegation in Spanish or Creole, please call 1-800-962-2873 for TTY use 711 or 1-800-955-8771.  This toll-free number is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with counselors waiting to assist you.

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