Avoiding Elder Abuse
by Felicia Juntunen, MA, CMC, ECM Director of Care Management
Our series this year has explored many of the challenges of aging as we sought to educate and encourage with information to help increase well-being while taking on these challenges. We’ve discussed how the holistic approach of Aging Life Care can provide support for older adults and their families. Part of the role of an Aging Life Care Professional is to help older adults avoid abuse, to recognize when they are at risk, and to report when they suspect abuse has occurred.
The National Council on Aging reports that in 2022 one in 10 Americans aged 60 and older experienced some form of elder abuse. Elder abuse falls into five broad categories: physical, sexual, emotional, neglect, and financial. The annual loss by victims of financial abuse is estimated at $36.5 billion. In almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect cases, the perpetrator is a family member. Elder abuse impacts every socio-economic and cultural demographic. These are tragic and sobering statistics. What makes older adults vulnerable to the risk of abuse? As people live longer, they experience functional decline that often leaves them increasingly dependent on others for care and support. Issues like social isolation, cognitive decline, and caregiver stress can add to their vulnerability.
Abuse can happen in any level of care, including at home, in Skilled Nursing care, or Assisted Living settings. Signs of physical abuse may include unexplained injuries, dehydration, unusual weight loss, or unmet medical needs. Emotional abuse may present as withdrawal from normal activity, unusual depression, or frequent arguments with a caregiver. Signs of financial abuse could include unpaid bills, sudden changes in spending patterns, missing assets, or the appearance of suspicious documents. It’s important to recognize the signs of abuse and understand how they differ from the normal aging process.
Planning for aging and increased communication are two proactive measures in the prevention of elder abuse. Aging Life Care Professionals stress to their clients the importance of getting their legal matters in order before a health decline, designating an appropriate Power of Attorney for that time when they may be needed, and completing an Advance Health Care Directive that represents their wishes. Care managers encourage their clients to communicate with their power of attorney regarding their financial matters and concerns before they need help, allowing time for that trusted person to assist in guarding and protecting their resources. Advance planning and communication can help avoid confusion, stress, and conflict that might otherwise leave an older adult vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Adequate oversight and advocacy are key components in the prevention of elder abuse. Regardless of where an older adult resides, as their aging progresses, they need a caring individual who regularly checks on their well-being, promotes their best interests, and stays in touch with any long-distance power of attorney. Abusers are less likely to perpetrate a crime or neglect if someone is paying attention. Remaining active and engaged with others also helps to limit the social isolation abusers look for. For caregivers who may feel isolated and stressed from their caregiving role, attending a support group can provide relief and insight into how to deal with their stress. Care managers testify to the protective value that results from planning, communication, oversight, advocacy, and caregiver support – all examples of the services provided by Aging Life Care Professionals. Fortunately, with proper education, preparation, and support, most elder abuse is avoidable.