How to Spot the Signs of Elder Abuse

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Elder care can be challenging for families to navigate. Whether they arrange care at home or decide to move a loved one into a facility, families want to make sure their loved ones are well cared for. Unfortunately, elders’ social isolation, mental impairment (such as in instances when they are facing dementia), and reliance on others for care makes them vulnerable to elder abuse.

Elder abuse comes in many forms. It includes any form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as exploitation, such as financial exploitation, which is increasing among the elderly; neglect; and abandonment. It can also come from many sources, including children, other family members, and spouses, as well as nursing homes and assisted living staff members.

Elder abuse is remarkably common. According to the National Council on Aging, one in 10 Americans aged 60 and older have experienced some form of elder abuse. That means as many as five million elders are abused each year. One study found only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported to the authorities. The federal government has beefed-up measures to combat elder abuse. Passed in 2017, the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act increased data collection on elder abuse and fraud cases, increased training for federal investigators around these crimes, and increased penalties for criminals who target seniors, among other things.

It is important for families and caretakers to know the signs of elder abuse so they can report and hold perpetrators accountable.

In the case of possible physical abuse, neglect or mistreatment, look for:

  • Unexplained signs of injury, including bruises, welts, or scars, particularly if they are symmetrical on both sides of the body
  • Pressure marks, bedsores, or other signs of being restrained
  • Broken bones
  • Abrasions
  • Burns
  • Unattended medical needs including poor hygiene or unusual weight loss
  • Report of a drug overdose or failure of the elder to take medication regularly (having more medication left on a prescription than should be there)
  • Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone

 Here are a few signs of potential emotional abuse:

  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities
  • A sudden change in alertness, or unusual depression
  • Strained or tense relationships
  • Frequent arguments between the caregiver and older adult
  • Controlling behavior from the caregiver
  • Elder behavior that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling

Be alert as well to financial abuse. Look out for sudden changes to financial situations. These may include sudden, large withdrawals from the elder’s account; items or cash missing from the senior’s household; and/or suspicious changes in wills, Power of Attorney, titles, or insurance policies. Healthcare fraud, which is related to financial abuse, has a few warning signs of its own, including duplicate billings for the same medical service and/or evidence of inadequate care even when bills are paid in full.  

To identify financial fraud and abuse, consider asking the elder these questions about sending and receiving money:

  • Have you been informed of and/or received a check for winning an international lottery you did not enter? 
  • Has anyone asked you to send money to someone in another country for an emergency situation that you cannot confirm?
  • Have you been asked to send money oversees to receive a deposit from another country?
  • Have you been offered payment for facilitating money transfers through your bank?
  • If you sold something over the internet: Is the check drawn on a different individual’s account than the purchaser? Is the amount of the check written for more than the item’s selling price? If so, did the payee write the check for more than they owed and then ask you to refund a portion or send it to a third party? 

If you believe an elder is being abused, report it. If an older adult is in immediate danger, call 911. In less emergent situations, contact your local Adult Protective Services office.

You can also seek out legal advice from PBWS’s caring team of attorneys. If you’re interested in learning more about how to respond to possible senior abuse, contact an elder law attorney or reach out to our office by calling (505)872-0505 or email us at