June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. People across the world use their collective voice to raise awareness about abuse against older persons. Elder abuse is an issue that affects millions of older adults and has negative effects on their health and well-being. It is estimated that 16% of seniors over the age of 60 have been affected by some form of abuse. Doing something starts with becoming aware of the types and signs of elder abuse to look out for.
COVID-19 pandemic and increase in abuse of older adults
During this COVID-19 pandemic, there have been reports of increased calls to helplines regarding abuse concerns, so the percentage may be even higher than the estimated 16 %. The CEO of CanAge, a national seniors advocacy group, states: “On a usual day, one-in-five older Canadians are subject to elder abuse. We are seeing a tenfold increase in elder abuse across the community.”
Social isolation puts seniors at risk
This increase of abuse may be due to being isolated, since isolation is known to put older adults at risk of abuse. Elder abuse is now more hidden than ever. Virtually all in-person community services have been suspended during this pandemic. Also, older adults are likely to have few people around them (such as homecare workers, other family members) to either notice if something is wrong or to ask for help. And some seniors are living with their abusers, which can make it hard to reach out for help.
Of course, most Canadians are now aware of the abuse of older adults in some long-term care homes, an awareness brought to the forefront in a military report during this pandemic.
Definition: what is “elder abuse”?
The Government of Canada defines “elder abuse” as “any action by someone in a relationship of trust that results in harm or distress to an older person.”
Types of abuse
Physical abuse is probably what we normally think of when we hear the term “elder abuse.” This type of abuse occurs when an older person is beaten, punched, kicked, scratched, pushed, has their hair pulled, or experiences any type of physical trauma that causes a physical injury, impairment, or even death. Restraining, confining, and forcing an older adult to inappropriately use drugs also counts as physical abuse.
Emotional or psychological abuse occurs when a person in a position of trust uses verbal or non-verbal tactics against an older adult in order to:
- Intimidate through yelling or threats
- Humiliate or ridicule
- Ignore or neglect the person’s needs
- Isolate the person from their circle of family and friends
- Terrorize or menace
Emotional abuse can leave scars that are just as painful as ones caused by physical abuse. It can undermine a person’s confidence and make them afraid of everyday situations and people, causing them to turn inwards as a result.
Older adults can also experience sexual abuse. This occurs when someone forces the older adult to engage in sexual acts without their consent. Examples of non-consensual sexual acts include:
- Rape and molestation
- Forcing the person to watch or take part in sexual acts
- Forcing the person to view pornographic material
- Forcing the person to undress for reasons other than to change clothes or bathe
Neglect can occur when caregivers (paid or unpaid) are:
- Not aware of the needs of the person in their care
- Unable to commit to their caregiving roles for various reasons
- Overwhelmed with balancing their caregiving duties along with their personal lives and careers
According to the Government of Canada neglect can become abusive when a caregiver deliberately or inadvertently fails to provide for an older person’s daily living needs such as:
- Food and/or water
- Medication and/or medical attention
- Assistance with basic necessities, such as hygiene and socialization
Financial abuse of older adults is “the most common form of elder abuse in Canada” . Financial exploitation of an older adult involves unauthorized use of their funds, property, or their private information in order to steal from them or others.
You may be interested in tips on how to protect yourself from the various COVID-19 financial scams and frauds that often target seniors.
Signs and symptoms of abuse
Injuries such as bruises, cuts, broken bones, sprains, burn marks, scratches, etc. especially if they repeatedly result in trips to the ER. The abuse of older adults can be difficult to pinpoint and not everyone displays the same signs and symptoms. Be on the lookout for:
- Fear or anxiety towards a caregiver, family member, or health care provider
- Changes in mood (depression, fear, anxiety, withdrawal)
- Poor health, nutrition, and hygiene. Rashes, open wounds, or sores could indicate dirty or unsafe living conditions, neglect, or an untreated illness
- Large withdrawals from their bank account, changes to wills or power of attorney, new loans taken out in their name
The link between abuse of older adults and ageism
According to a Canadian research survey, ageism is more tolerated than racism and sexism in Canada. Ageist attitudes and assumptions can feed and justify abuse. Older Canadians reported that the most common forms of age discrimination they face are:
- Being treated like they have nothing to contribute (38 %)
- Being ignored or treated as though they are invisible (41 %)
- Assuming that seniors are incompetent (27%)
The first step towards change begins with an awareness of any ageist beliefs and attitudes we may have.
When you suspect abuse: what to do
If you suspect that an older adult is being abused, reach out to one of the many provincial and territorial resources for help.