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Elder Abuse and Neglect: An Escalating Problem

Stacey McDaniel
elder abuse and neglect in long-term care

In a society that prizes independence, questioning someone’s self-sufficiency may seem like an unforgivable intrusion on personal freedom. But juxtapose an aging population with cuts to social services and a rise in elder abuse, including fraud, and a different, more complex picture emerges.

The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that “knowledge about elder abuse lags as much as two decades behind the fields of child abuse and domestic violence.” What we do know is that approximately 10 percent of seniors suffer elder abuse, which can include physical, psychological, verbal or sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect. Sometimes that includes self-neglect, such as when a person stops carrying out essential tasks like bathing, eating or taking care of medical conditions.

What constitutes abuse or neglect? According to the National Institute on Aging, you may notice when visiting that an older person:

  • Has trouble sleeping
  • Seems depressed or confused
  • Loses weight for no reason
  • Displays signs of trauma, like rocking back and forth
  • Acts agitated or violent
  • Becomes withdrawn
  • Stops taking part in activities they enjoy
  • Has unexplained bruises, burns or scars
  • Looks messy, with unwashed hair or dirty clothes
  • Develops bed sores or other preventable conditions

If you see any of these signs, try talking with the person to find out what’s going on. Above all, get help.

But what if you’re not sure you should intervene? A recent Boston Globe article examined the fine line neighbors tread when considering whether to call the authorities about older seniors who have withdrawn from view or appear to be deteriorating physically.

Oftentimes, a neighbor senses that something is wrong but isn’t sure what, if anything, to do. Mike Festa, AARP’s Massachusetts state director and a secretary of elder affairs under former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, offered several tips.

“The first thing you have to address is, ‘What is the nature of the concern?” he told the Globe. If a neighbor you see regularly hasn’t been around for a long time, but you know she hasn’t moved or isn’t on vacation, he said, “that is a potentially an emergency” and you should call the police.

If it looks like the neighbor is being neglected or no longer taking care of her home — or herself — call your state’s elder abuse hotline. The National Adult Protection Services Association features a map that allows you to click on your state and get contact information for reporting in your area.

And if you suspect financial exploitation, such as fraud or ID theft — “If your neighbor says something like ‘I just lost money,’ or ‘I don’t have any money,’” Festa said — you can call AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 1-877-908-3360, where a trained volunteer will take your report and help you navigate resources.

As the population ages, and more seniors choose to stay in their homes rather than move into nursing homes or assisted living facilities, the most vulnerable may become isolated and at risk of abuse. It’s up to all of us, as neighbors and as members of the larger community, to look out for them.

Amy Nofziger is AARP Foundation’s director of regional operations and serves as one of AARP’s consumer fraud experts.

Additional Resources

If you suspect that someone you know is being abused or neglected in a long-term care facility (e.g., a nursing home), contact an ombudsman in your area at http://theconsumervoice.org/get_help.

If you suspect fraud or scams:

  • AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 1-877-908-3360 has trained volunteers to take a report and help navigate resources. The website features pointers on recognizing and avoiding scams that target seniors.
  • The Federal Trade Commission provides a wealth of information on receiving a free credit report, signing up for the National Do Not Call registry, file a consumer complaint, the steps to take in an identity theft situation and other great tips.
  • To report an IRS scam phone call, call the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.
  • To make sure an investment broker is licensed and registered, go to saveandinvest.org or call 888-295-7422.
  • Report online scams or internet crime complaints to the FBI’s ic3.gov website.
  • Contact your state attorney general’s office for further assistance.
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