How To Recognize Signs of Elder Abuse
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million older adults are abused every year, however, only 1 in 24 cases are reported. This means that law enforcement is missing or overlooking a lot of cases, said Tim Hardiman, a 23-year veteran of the NYPD. It is imperative that officers know the signs of elder abuse and take the time to investigate suspected cases.
What is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to an older person, said Joy Solomon, director and managing attorney at The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention. Older adults often endure years of abuse and, on average, an older victim suffers for 10 years before coming forward about abuse. This is because the abuse almost always involves a person an elderly person trusts or loves, very similar to cases of domestic violence. In 90 percent of cases, a family member is the abuser.
Forms of Elder Abuse
Here are some of the more prominent types of abuse:
- Financial exploitation: This is the most common form of elder abuse. Perpetrators often find ways to access an older adult’s money and use it without permission. A Metlife Mature Market Institute study found that $2.9 billion is stolen from older adults each year in this country as the result of elder abuse. It is also considered exploitative to use an older person’s items (like cars, homes, etc.) without permission.
- Physical abuse: Physical abuse can be different for older people than for other demographic groups. For example, it is considered physical abuse for a perpetrator to take away an older person’s cane or walker, rendering them immobile. In other cases, abusers may give an older person excessive medication to keep them drowsy or debilitated.
- Sexual abuse: 18 percent of women who are raped are 60 years of age or older.
- Emotional abuse: Emotional abuse is present in almost every case of abuse and encompasses a wide range of behavior. It can include put-downs, name calling, threats (e.g. abandoning the victim, putting the victim in a nursing home, physically harming the victim), the silent treatment, treating the victim like a child or even abusing the victim’s pet.
- Neglect: Neglect of an older person’s basic needs, such as not providing proper hygiene, can be considered abusive if the perpetrator is a paid or court-appointed caregiver, or if a person claims to be a caregiver and then fails to provide care.
- Polyvictimization: Often multiple forms of abuse occur, whether it’s multiple incidents or multiple abusers. Similar to other types of crime, once an older person has been abused, they are more likely to be victimized again.
There is a strong similarity between elder abuse and domestic violence. In both cases, victims are hesitant to press charges or go through with prosecution because they feel dependent on the perpetrator, said Hardiman.
Tips for Law Enforcement
- When investigating a suspected case of elder abuse, think about what could be used to hurt that person. Do they have bruises or bedsores? Hurting a person may come in different forms. For example, often times older adults have only a few items of value or significance to them—if there are broken items at a scene, ask who they belong to and gauge the potential significance of that item.
- Interview neighbors and people who live near the victim to get a sense of the relationship with the suspected abuser.
- Take a statement immediately from a suspected abuser to lock them into their story.
- Note behavior between the suspect and victim. Comments like: “She’s too old” or “She doesn’t understand and is confused” could be indicators of an abusive relationship. In cases of abuse, perpetrators often try to convince law enforcement of the senility of older victims in an effort not to let them be heard.
- Note the hygiene and attire of the elderly person. Have they been cared for properly? Poor hygiene is often a sign of abuse.
- What are their living conditions like? Is there food in the fridge? Does the older person have the appropriate assistive devices (e.g. dentures, hearing aid, glasses)? Are they living in an appropriate location or are they wheelchair bound but living in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment building?
Interviewing an Elderly Subject
When interviewing an elderly person, it is important to take age into consideration. Here are some tips for interviewing an elderly subject:
- First and foremost, make the person feel safe.
- Always interview the older adult alone, no matter what a family member or caregiver tells you. A victim will not speak freely while someone else is present.
- Always assume the victim is credible, even if there is a known or suspected dementia diagnosis. Studies show that older adults with dementia can still accurately recount abuse most of the time. Additionally, an abuser may fabricate cognitive impairment to isolate the victim.
- Clearly identify yourself, using your name and title.
- Make sure the older adult has the assistive devices they need to interact meaningfully (e.g. glasses, hearing aid).
- Speak to the older adult at eye level; do not tower over them.
- Give an older adult time to process the situation.
- Be patient and slow down the interview process.
- Ask one question at a time. Don’t ask compound questions.
- Take frequent breaks. Older adults can tire easily.
- Ensure there are no distractions such as a television playing or too many people in the room.
- Provide food and water as needed. Older adults are often chronically dehydrated, which can lead to mental confusion.
- Conduct the interview somewhere where the elderly person feels comfortable, often this means in the home rather than in a police station.
- Pay attention to signs of discomfort. When a victim’s body language changes, it is an indicator that a question hit a nerve or they are not telling the truth. If they stop making eye contact, ask for a break and take note that the subject of the question needs to be further investigated.
- Address common fears. Many elderly people are dependent on their caregivers and fear losing them. They also fear being removed from their home and put in a nursing home.
- Provide information about available help and resources.
Don’t Forget the Rights of Older Adults
Remember that people of all ages have the right to make bad decisions. Older people are adults with decision-making capacity and they have the right to exercise free choice, even if those decisions appear to be harmful, said Solomon. They can refuse services as long as their decision has a sound basis in reality and they fully understand the consequences.
However, if a person’s capacity is questionable, it is important for police officers to contact experts to evaluate and determine the person’s ability to make sound decisions. Officers can reach out to government adult protective services, medical professionals, geriatric psychiatrists, community agencies, and victim support groups for assistance.
For more information, please visit American Military University’s Law Enforcement Resource Guide for Elder Abuse.
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