The distressing crime of elder abuse often occurs in quiet, private settings, making a vocal, public response that much more important. Let us strengthen our resolve to end this problem as part of our broader efforts to create a life of dignity for all.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N.Resolution 66/127

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly designated June 15 as annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). It represents one day in the year when the whole world is urged to turn its gaze directly to the abuse and suffering inflicted upon some among our older generations. But the sad reality is that such abuse goes on 365 days a year and is far more prevalent than we would like to believe. Elder abuse is a global social issue which affects the health and human rights of millions of older persons around the world and an issue which deserves the year-round attention of the international community. 

At the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), we work daily with elders, their families and loved ones whose lives have been shattered at the hands of this devastating public health issue.  First established by the U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA), this grant-funded resource center is now housed within the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Our Mission: “To improve the national response to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation by gathering, housing, disseminating, and stimulating innovative, validated methods of practice, education, research, and policy.” The NCEA is passionate about effecting real change to address this devastating problem. With attention, education, training and proper reporting, elder abuse can be significantly reduced.

Elder abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological consequences. The incidence of abuse toward older people is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly aging populations. The global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double over just a thirty-year period, from 542 million in 1995 to about 1.2 billion in 2025. Elder abuse is a tragedy that affects hundreds of thousands of seniors regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic class. Even though one in ten seniors has been subjected to financial, physical or emotional abuse, elder abuse is still a vastly under-recognized problem.

Elder Abuse takes many forms – physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, financial abuse and sexual abuse, making it multi-layered, complex and insidious. Many older adults are abused in their own homes, in relatives’ homes and even in facilities responsible for their care. It is important that if there is suspicion that an elderly person is at risk of neglect, physical abuse, undue influence or being preyed upon financially, that it is reported immediately.

Some of the warning signs of the different types of abuse are: 

  • Neglect – Disheveled appearance, home in disrepair, untreated pressure “bed” sores.
  • Financial – Forged signatures on documents, unusual banking transactions/withdrawals.
  • Emotional – Uncharacteristic changes in behavior, withdrawal, isolation, depression.
  • Physical – Inadequately explained fractures, bruises, welts, cuts, weight loss.
  • Sexual – unexplained sexually transmitted diseases.

A full listing of Red Flags of Abuse can be found here.

How to Help Prevent Elder Abuse

Isolation is a common denominator in many cases of abuse. It is important that older adults at risk of isolation be provided with connections to keep them anchored to their community, current events and resources. Many of us may come into contact with isolated older adults, whether in our professional roles or personally. The following points can help empower us all to take action to protect the older adults in our communities.

If you suspect abuse, report your concerns immediately to local law enforcement and adult protective services. If the suspected abuse is occurring in a licensed long-term care facility, contact the long-term care ombudsman for that facility. A poster should be hung in a conspicuous area of every licensed facility with contact information for reporting concerns.

Even if they’re able, many seniors don’t report the abuse they face. Some fear retaliation from the abuser while others believe that if they turn in their abusers, no one else will take care of them. These are very difficult psycho-social issues to be cognizant of. When the caregivers are their children, they may be ashamed that their children are behaving abusively or blame themselves. He or she may be in denial, feel ashamed about needing help or worried about having to leave home. Don’t stop checking in with the older adult, even if you are brushed off at first. Enlist others to express their feelings of concern to the elder. Sometimes a peer or a neutral party, such as a geriatric care manager, may have a better chance of getting through.

It can be a real challenge to respect an older adult’s right to autonomy while at the same time making sure they are properly cared for. If you are concerned that a person’s ability to take care of themselves safely is compromised, reach out to law enforcement and adult protective services for advice.

So on this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, let’s be reminded of the powerful quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

Please visit the NCEA website to learn more about this issue and ways you can help make a difference.

When it comes to Preventing Elder Abuse, an individual can do so much.

Julie Schoen, JD
Deputy Director of the National Center on Elder Abuse
Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California