Ending Elder Abuse: What It Takes

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The lawn in front of the senior center in my hometown is covered in what looks at a glance like purple poppies. Except they’re not flowers. They’re tiny purple flags, each representing a reported case of elder abuse. I was shocked to learn that in a town of about 8000 residents, there were more than 300 flags on the lawn for 2017.

Elder abuse covers many categories. Symptoms may look like:

  • Physical abuse (bruises, wounds, fearful or skittish behavior)
  • Neglect/Abandonment (unkempt appearance, malnutrition)
  • Mental/Emotional (agitation, dementia-like activity such as biting or rocking)
  • Financial (sudden large bank withdrawal; abrupt change in will, identity theft, and various types of scams).

In addition, the digital age has spawned a rising tide of smart-home stalking, a new form of abuse in which the abuser monitors a victim’s home and instigates disturbing actions such as door lock code changes, bursts of music, boosting thermostats to an unbearable temperature, or continually ringing the doorbell.

Having one’s smart home go haywire can make someone think they’re going crazy. For a senior who may be less than comfortable with technology, or a bit concerned about their mental stability as they age, it can be terrifying. Fortunately, so far these forms of technology abuse have not specifically targeted the elderly — but it’s smart to be prepared.


Does More Reporting Equal Better Outcomes?

Shockingly, the abusers are most often family members — the very people an elder ought to be able to trust.family-elder-abuse

Those who suspect and report might include senior transport drivers, who note the poor state of someone’s appearance or home when they come to pick them up, as well as caregivers, doctors, and others who interact with the elder (such as reverse mortgage professionals).

What can be done to stem this rising tide of mistreatment?

  • Awareness. Abuse is often a cry for help from the perpetrator. The person might be depressed, overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities, devoid of support or coping strategies, or have a chemical dependency. These are all remediable issues, but awareness comes first.
  • Surveillance. Technology works both ways. Whether a senior has a smart home or one of average intelligence, they would do well to invest in video surveillance. Both indoor and outdoor security cameras are available in a range of prices, and a tech geek (perhaps a grandchild, or someone from a local computer store) can install it and show the senior how it works. A security camera often acts as a good deterrent.
  • Education, empathy, respect. Understanding the aging process, the unique needs of elders, and how the generations can work together can help engender respect and reduce the incidence of abuse.
  • Resources. Knowing how and where to find help for a senior — and when to get help as a caregiver — is crucial for anyone who works with or lives with an older person. As the population continues to spiral upward worldwide, this is rapidly defining the majority of people. Caregiver coaching can also make a major difference for the better.
  • Remote patient monitoring. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is considering paying home health agencies for remote patient monitoring (blood pressure and other vital signs), critical as more care is delivered in-home. It also means any changes in someone’s well being will be readily apparent.
  • Peer support. Japan, with the globe’s largest elder population, is innovating in all areas of vital aging, from octogenarian pop bands to peer-aged caregivers. Yes, the old are taking care of their own — in part because there is no one else to do it. With a growing labor shortage and rising tide of seniors, the country is encouraging healthy adults of “retirement age” to consider an encore career as a caregiver. Bonus: they understand what their cohorts face, and what they need.


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