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Elder Abuse More Common Than Thought

New Jersey Home Care News

Joan and her mother always had a difficult relationship, dating back to when she was a teenager. Yet, following the death of her father, Joan felt she had no choice but to invite her mother to live with her and her family. After all, her mother lived nearly 90 minutes away, and Joan’s busy life — a 50-hour work week and a family that included two young children — made checking up regularly on the welfare of her mother impossible.

At first, the situation seemed to work out. The kids enjoyed having grandma around to play games, help them with their homework and watch television with, while the ever present baby sitter gave Joan and her husband some much needed time alone. But, when Joan’s husband was suddenly downsized and her younger daughter began to have more frequent asthma attacks, tensions mounted.

Very often, Madeline found herself acting short with her mother. She didn’t like the way her mother was babying her younger daughter and, in general, found her increasingly controlling — the same problem she faced with her mother over a quarter of a century ago. On several occasions, Joan lost control, grabbing her mother and pushing her, at other times threatening to physically throw her out of the house.

Not all elder care abuse happens in long-term care facilities. Most elder care abuse, in fact, occurs at home and all too often the abusers are family members who find themselves stressed out by their caregiver role.

An estimated 2.1 million elderly adults are abused every year. This includes physical or psychological abuse – hitting, insulting, name calling, neglecting, humiliating and/or terrorizing – or financial exploitation, which can range from misuse of an elderly person’s funds to embezzlement. It is often an ugly family secret. Elder abuse, like domestic abuse, all too often stays hidden within the confines of the family home. Neighbors and often family members are usually unaware.

There is no single pattern of elder care abuse. It may be a continuation of long-standing patterns of behavior within the family. As with Joan, it might be recurring behavior patterns that once again raise ancient conflicts. Often, the growing frailty and dependence of an elderly person will only worsen an already stressful situation, causing burned out caregivers to rage against the elders in their care.

The risk factors among caregivers are often visible:

An inability to cope with stress, depression, lack of support from other potential caregivers, substance abuse, and a growing feeling that the responsibility has unfairly fallen on them. An elderly parent moving into a family member’s home can result in many lifestyle adjustments that the caregiver views as negative: a change in the family dynamics, a loss of privacy, a loss of control, and additional financial burdens.

The elderly person’s condition is only likely to further the odds of an abusive situation. The intensity of an elderly’s person’s illness or dementia, social isolation between the elderly individual and caregiver, the possibility that the elder was at one-time an abusive parent or spouse, a history of domestic violence, and the elder’s own tendency towards verbal or physical aggression will only add fuel to the fire.

Signs of Elder Abuse

The victims, often intimidated by the abuse, are very often unlikely to admit it to anyone, just like a battered wife. Or, their dementia may prevent them from even knowing they have been abused. Physical symptoms of elder care abuse, such as bruises or unexplained injuries (as with child abuse), are fairly obvious.

The symptoms of emotional or psychological abuse, however, are far more subtle. They are likely to present themselves in the elderly individual becoming uncommunicative and unresponsive, depressed, confused; show changes in personal appearance; display excessive tiredness; or demonstrate a lack of interest in social activities. Signs of neglect may include dirty clothes, malnutrition, unsanitary living conditions, or bedsores. Signs indicative of financial exploitation may come out in terms of unusual activities in the elderly person’s bank account, missing household items, changes in wills, forgery, unpaid bills, and/or unexplained purchases.

Stopping Elder Abuse

What can you do if you suspect that an elderly person is being abused or neglected? The most important thing is not to ignore it. Contact Adult Protective Services (APS), a state-mandated case management program that arranges for services and support for physically and/or mentally impaired adults who are at risk of harm. Complainants may be clients, caregivers, family members, agencies or any interested or involved individuals. An investigation will ensue and a determination made if the elderly adult is at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation. All information generated by the investigation is confidential.

Caregivers who feel increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of caring for an elderly person, can also receive help. Often, in the case of caregiver burnout, respite care offered by a reputable home care agency, can prevent a stressed individual from becoming an abusive one. Request help from family members or friends. Find an adult day care program for the elderly family member. Explore stress reduction practices and/or seek counseling for depression or to teach you better coping mechanisms. If the abuse is a result of or exacerbated by alcohol or drug use, get help.

Victims of elder abuse need to avoid being isolated with their abuser. Keep in touch with family and friends. Make sure your financial and legal affairs are in order. Most of all, speak up. Either make that call yourself or find someone you trust and have them make that call. Let your physician, who is legally obligated to report any cases of abuse, know about it. Elder care abuse of any kind must not be tolerated.

Whether you are an observer, a caregiver, or the one being cared for, you need to take whatever means are necessary to make sure the abuse ends.

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