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Perpetrators of Elder Abuse Are Usually Family Members

Many elderly people rely entirely on family or other trusted individuals to help them. Whether it is physiological or psychological, as people grow older they tend to need guidance and support. Unfortunately, the dependence upon caregivers or family members makes an older person more vulnerable to abuse.

One in ten Americans (age 60+) are suffering from some form of abuse. Worse yet, one study estimates that only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.

Many believe institutions for care, like assisted living and nursing homes, commit the most abuse. This is not so. Research shows that 90% of elder abuse cases are perpetrated by family members.

A typical elder abuse story might go something like this:

An aging widow, relying on her children to provide meals, transportation, and to make financial decisions, finds it difficult to report abuse when one of her children takes advantage of her. The child takes her money, hits her and is neglectful in caregiving. Furthermore, the widow is threatened with loss of support from the child if the she complains.

Common Classifications of Adult Abuse

Physical abuse – inflicting physical pain or injury upon an older adult.

Emotional abuse – verbal assaults, threats of abuse, harassment, or intimidation.

Financial abuse – stealing money or changing title on assets. A MetLife study found that seniors lose at least $2.9 billion annually to financial exploitation. Over half of financial abuse in the United States is committed by family members, caregivers and friends.

Active and passive neglect by caregivers – Active neglect is the willful failure by a caregiver to fulfill caretaking functions and responsibilities. This includes, but is not limited to, abandonment, deprivation of food, water, heat, cleanliness, eyeglasses, dentures or health-related services. Passive neglect is the non-willful failure to fulfill care-taking responsibilities because of inadequate caregiver knowledge, infirmity or disputing the value of prescribed services.

Sexual abuse – touching, fondling, intercourse or any other sexual activity with an older adult, when the older adult is unable to understand, unwilling to consent, threatened or physically forced.

Self-neglect is one of the most common forms of abuse, but is self-imposed, unlike the others. This occurs when an individual is failing to care for his or her own self needs. Proper hygiene, meal preparation and prescription drug management are usually the first to suffer. The good news here is that they are easily detected, and easy to correct.

What Can You Do to Help Prevent Abuse?

Watch for warning signs that might indicate elder abuse.

Look in their refrigerator – Are they consuming the food they have? Is some of it going bad because of neglect?

Take a look at the elder's medications – Are they being taken properly?

Watch for possible financial abuse – Are they loaning people money all of a sudden?

Call and visit as often as you can. Even quick drop-ins are beneficial, and it allows you to see how they are when they aren’t expecting someone.

Ask questions about health, happiness and safety. Stay on top of doctor visits and go with them whenever possible. Two sets of ears are always better than one, and you will get the rest of the story this way.

Offer to stay with the elder so the caregiver can have a break on a regular basis, if possible.

Report the Abuse

All states have agencies that receive complaints of abuse. In many states, failure to report abuse of the elderly is a crime. Anyone who suspects that an older adult is being mistreated should contact a local Adult Protective Services office, Long-Term Care Ombudsman or the police. The Elder Abuse Hotline phone number is (800) 677-1116.

Gregory A. Steen is the CEO of Steen & Company, a full-service estate planning firm. Steen is also the host of the popular Truth4Seniors TV program, and founder of Truth4Seniors. He is certified in Life Resource Planning, and a member of the National Ethics Association and the National Association of Senior Advocates. He can be reached at


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