Avoiding Elder Abuse, August 2019

by LaBrena Friend, LMSW

As a social work professional working primarily with older adults, I wish I could say I never found evidence that a client was being exploited or abused by a caregiver. But unfortunately, abuse and neglect do happen.   

Not long ago, I began working with Mrs. K., a widow in her 80s. Mrs. K. and her late husband both retired after rearing their two children. When her husband died, Mrs. K. had sufficient savings to pay for the care she needs now, as her health is in decline. However, as her son recently discovered, Mrs. K.’s daughter secretly siphoned money from her mother’s financial accounts for years. Today, Mrs. K. can barely afford to pay for groceries, let alone for the personal care she needs to continue living safely.

Elder abuse and exploitation, sadly, are both common and under-reported. When we think of elder abuse, we tend to focus on physical abuse, but, as Mrs. K’s story shows, abuse can take many forms.  Elder abuse can include any intentional or negligent act by a caregiver or trusted individual that causes harm to a vulnerable older adult. This can include not only physical harm and financial exploitation but sexual abuse, abandonment and psychological or emotional abuse.

The most common type of abuse involving seniors is financial; it’s been estimated that senior citizens in the U.S. lose $2.6 billion each year due to financial exploitation. The good news is that friends and caregivers can reduce the likelihood of abuse by following these guidelines:

  1. Urge seniors to live near family when possible. Isolation can lead to loneliness and depression. Loved ones living nearby can offer assistance, notice any changes that could be signs of abuse and reassure older adults that they are still needed and valued.
  2. Stay in touch. Even family members and friends living far away can keep up with older adults’ daily activities and habits and be alert to any troubling changes. If you’re concerned about potential abuse, find a way to ask. Frequent contact will encourage older adults to request assistance when needed.
  3. Encourage seniors to get out. As we age, we may naturally feel more isolated. Attending community events can help seniors maintain a social life and keep up with things that matter to them.
  4. Talk about the danger of scams. Older adults can be especially vulnerable to deceptive solicitations. Remind older adults to be watchful for dishonest practices and let them know when you hear of a new scam.
  5. If you know an older adult is living in a potentially abusive situation, help them find a safer housing situation. When a senior lives with someone who has a history of violence or abuse, it’s likely that behavior will manifest again - especially against a person who is vulnerable or weak. If you need assistance or advice about an intervention, contact a social service agency such as CJFS, or your local Department of Human Resources.
  6. Elders should be responsible for/aware of their own finances. While it's normal for older people to enlist family members to help to manage their finances, they should ultimately be in control of them. By knowing where the money is going, elders are less likely to become victims of financial abuse.
  7. Take care with caregivers. Many hired caregivers are trustworthy and caring. Unfortunately, physical and emotional abuse and neglect can occur. Dishonest individuals may seek to alter estate plans, add names to financial accounts or land titles or abuse credit cards. Hire only caregivers who have been carefully screened, and check references. Observe how the caregiver interacts with the older person. Watch for any changes in the older person’s behavior or appearance which could signal abuse.
  8. Help seniors stay active. Regardless of our age, staying active helps us avoid depression and feel better. It can also help us be less passive, reducing the likelihood of abuse. Many insurance providers offer subsidies for gym memberships, and many older adults will be happy to join a friend or loved one on a healthy walk – they just want you to ask! 

The licensed clinical social workers of CJFS provide professional counseling and case management for families and individuals of all ages.

For more information or to make an appointment, please contact CJFS Clinical Director Marcy Morgenbesser, marcy@cjfsbham.org or 205.879.3438.