Getting Help for Suspected Victims of Elder Abuse or Neglect
Many elderly residents are capable of living independently. But sooner or later, you may have an elderly resident who has trouble coping with day-to-day concerns, such as managing money, paying rent on time, or keeping his unit tidy. Or you may suspect elder abuse within a household. In general, elder abuse is a term referring to any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. For example, a senior household head may be threatened or abused by an adult child or teenage grandchild.
Fortunately, there are agencies that assist elderly residents. These agencies can petition for guardians to utilize legal resources to protect the resident or provide services directly to residents to help them care for themselves. These services can provide access to home-delivered meals, home care attendants, chore services, and other in-home supportive services for seniors who need help.
It’s important to remain alert. The suffering is often in silence. If you or your staff notice changes in personality, behavior, or physical condition, you should start to question what’s going on. While one sign doesn’t necessarily indicate abuse, some indicators that there could be a problem are:
- Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment;
- Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse;
- Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation;
- Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect; and
- Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs.
Tragically, sometimes elderly members neglect their own care, which can lead to illness or injury. Self-neglect is one of the most frequently reported concerns and, oftentimes, the problem is paired with declining health, isolation, Alzheimer's disease or dementia, or drug and alcohol dependency. Self-neglect can include behaviors such as:
- Hoarding of objects, newspapers/magazines, mail/paperwork, etc., and/or animal hoarding to the extent that the safety of the individual and/or other household members or site residents is threatened or compromised;
- Failure to provide adequate food and nutrition for oneself;
- Failure to take essential medications or refusal to seek medical treatment for serious illness;
- Leaving a burning stove unattended;
- Poor hygiene;
- Not wearing suitable clothing for the weather;
- Inability to attend to housekeeping; and
In some of these cases, elderly abused residents will be connected to services that can allow them to continue living on their own. Some conditions like depression and malnutrition may be successfully treated through medical intervention. If the problems are severe enough, a guardian may be appointed.
How to Find Help
If you suspect something is going on, you should seek help through your local “adult protective services” (APS) department. APS departments are state or local agencies that get funding from the federal Administration on Aging to provide services for the elderly, including help for seniors who are being abused and who have no one available to assist them responsibly.
Services may include financial management of Social Security benefits, heavy-duty cleaning services, finding alternate living arrangements, psychiatric or medical examination referrals, help with getting and recertifying home care services, and help with getting and recertifying Social Security Supplemental Security Income benefits.
APS can also petition for guardians ad litem—that is, guardians who represent the interests of a person in a single action in a lawsuit—for people who need help in ensuring their own safety or the safety of their property. In some cases, the state agency or a family member or neighbor can seek to have a permanent guardian appointed if the senior is incapable of managing day-to-day concerns.
To locate the APS department nearest you, you can contact the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 or access the database at www.eldercare.gov. APS is a state-mandated program that is available, regardless of income, to those who are mentally or physically impaired and unable to carry out daily chores or protect themselves from neglect without assistance. Referrals can be made by friends, relatives, neighbors, and other concerned individuals within the community.
What to Say
Here are some tips on what to say when you call one of these agencies.
Describe danger to resident, not to your building. Social services are interested in the welfare of the elderly resident; they are not interested in your building. When you call an agency, describe the danger the resident poses to himself, not the danger he poses to your building. For example, a resident who leaves gas jets on may asphyxiate himself or die in a fire.
Let agency decide how to help. Don’t try to diagnose the resident’s problem or tell the agency what kind of help is needed. You may think he needs to be in a hospital, but you should stick with the facts—for example, the resident leaves faucets running and gas jets turned on. Let the agency decide what help is called for.