Forward Thinking – Elder Abuse Statistics Frightening; Awareness is Key

The statistics tell a story we hear little about. According to the National Council on Aging, “approximately one in 10 Americans aged 60-plus have experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimates range as high as five million elders who are abused each year.”

Sadly, one study cited by the NCOA estimates that only one in 24 cases of abuse are reported to authorities. Tuesday was Elder Abuse Awareness Day and so the timing seems perfect to address just that.

Who is at highest risk? If you, like me, have an older parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, here’s a Red Alert: According to the NCOA, nearly half of those with dementia experience abuse or neglect. Social isolation is another red flag. And those with disabilities are at greater risk of interpersonal violence.

Don’t be lulled into thinking elder abuse only occurs in institutional settings. In fact, relatives are the perpetrators in almost 60 percent of elder abuse and neglect incidents – with adult children or spouses being the top offenders.

Let’s backtrack to define what elder abuse encompasses. We’ll start with physical abuse – which, surprisingly, doesn’t have to include physical violence.

Sometimes it involves “passive neglect,” meaning the caregiver fails to provide the basics of life – food, adequate shelter, clothing and medical care, for instance. You can see how this can happen unintentionally, especially if the caretaker is an elderly spouse, for instance. If you know of or suspect a case of passive neglect, please reach out to one of the Middle TN Elder Watch Committee members listed below who can help find or provide needed resources.

Please don’t confuse passive neglect with “willful deprivation” though both are legally considered elder abuse. Here the abuser purposely denies one or more of life’s basic necessities, including therapeutic devices or other physical assistance.

Other types of elder abuse are emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse or exploitation.

Every employee at The Heritage at Brentwood – even an occasional weekend receptionist like I once was – is required to take an elder abuse awareness course each year. I wish everyone could take it.

Sadly, too many of our most vulnerable seniors, especially those for whom independent living is no longer possible, simply aren’t valued or protected. Let’s work together to try to change that.

To that end I’m sharing signs of elder abuse we can all be on the lookout for when we are with our older relatives, friends, church family, neighbors and more.

If you have a friend or relative who resides at a long-term care community, visit often. Also, try to engage with — and keep an eye out for – those residents who rarely have visitors, if at all. Unfortunately, the Mid-Cumberland Human Resources Agency states that 50 percent of residents in “homes for the aged” have no family or friends to advocate for them.

Tennessee state law requires “any person, including, but not limited to, a physician, nurse, social worker, department personnel, coroner, medical examiner, alternate care facility employee, or caretaker” to report suspicions of elder abuse.

If you believe someone is in immediate, life-threatening danger, call 911. If you suspect elder abuse, contact your local police department or the sheriff’s office or the Tennessee Adult Protective Services at 888-APS-TENN (888-277-8366). The National Center on Elder Abuse offers more ways to get help by calling 1-800-677-1116.

Other resources include FiftyForward’s Victory Over Crime program, 615-743-3417 and the Mid-Cumberland Human Resource Agency’s Ombudsman program, 615-850-3918.

Definitions and signs of Elder Abuse

Physical abuse means inflicting physical pain or injury upon an older adult. Signs: Dehydration or unusual weight loss; missing daily living aids, unexplained injuries, bruises, cuts or sores; unsanitary living conditions and poor hygiene and/or unattended medical needs.

Emotional abuse means verbal assaults, threats of abuse, harassment and/or intimidation. It often includes bullying, belittling and other uses of power and control. Signs: Increased fear or anxiety, isolation from friends or family; unusual changes in behavior or sleep; withdrawal from normal activities

Financial exploitation means the misuse or withholding of an older adult’s resources by another. Signs: Sudden changes in a person’s financial situation; fraudulent signatures on financial documents; unpaid bills and unusual or sudden changes in spending patterns, a will, or other financial documents.

Sexual abuse means touching, fondling, intercourse or any other sexual activity with an older adult, who is unable to understand, unwilling to consent, threatened or physically forced. Signs: Visible fear of a specific person, a STD diagnosis, unexplained injuries and bruises.

Confinement – keeping an older adult restrained or isolated other than for medical reasons – is also considered abuse

Next month: Ways to protect yourself from elder abuse.

Susan Leathers is a Brentwood-based journalist with a keen interest in aging issues. Send suggestions for future columns to [email protected]. This monthly column is sponsored by The Heritage at Brentwood. For more information, call 615-507-2686 or visit