Elder Abuse Caution: Beware of When Things Go Full Circle

Anyone who pays attention to the news no doubt hears or reads countless stories about the various types of abuse that are rampant in our society:  child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and animal abuse, to name a few.  However, there is one type of abuse that is becoming more and more prevalent but receives little media coverage: elder abuse. 

According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, as many as 5 million elderly Americans are abused each year.[1] In previous blog posts, I called your attention to four types of “shady characters” to look out for when it comes to your senior relatives.  Today, I will shed light on a fifth type, one that many people don’t want to acknowledge but that is more common than we might believe.  I will also highlight the six primary types of elder abuse and briefly define each of them. 

The Six Types of Elder Abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse classifies abuse into the following categories[2]:

  • Abandonment:  Desertion of a vulnerable senior by someone who has assumed responsibility for that person’s care or custody.
  • Emotional abuse:  The infliction of mental pain or anguish on an elderly person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
  • Exploitation:  Illegally taking, misusing, or concealing a vulnerable senior’s funds, property, or assets.
  • Neglect:  The failure of a responsible party to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection to a vulnerable elderly person.
  • Physical:  Inflicting or threatening to inflict physical pain or injury on an elderly person, or depriving them of a basic need.
  • Sexual abuse:  Nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind.

It is important to note that although the above types of abuse are distinctly defined, in many instances an elderly person endures more than one type of mistreatment simultaneously.  Sadly, the vast majority of this abuse—approximately 90%— is inflicted upon the elderly by family members.[3]  Although the perpetrator is most often the person’s caregiving spouse, abuse by adult children is also rampant, especially those who have been previously abused themselves. 

When the Abused Becomes the Abuser

Many children were abused while growing up. Under the stress of eldercare, some of these individuals end up abusing the same parent who abused them years ago, bringing the cycle of abuse full circle.  This abuse isn’t always deliberate and may occur more as a result of caregiver stress and depression than out of a desire to retaliate against one’s onetime abuser. 

Research reveals that those who report having endured childhood parental maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents. A January 2014 article in The New York Times[4] highlighted a study that showed that almost 19 percent of adult caregivers experienced physical, verbal, or sexual abuse as children, and 9.4 percent reported neglect.  When compared to those caregivers who had not been abused by their parents during childhood, these individuals were more likely to experience symptoms of depression, such as lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness, and lethargy. 

Caregivers with a history of maltreatment should be aware of the risk they are assuming in caring for their previously abusive parent. If the strain of caregiving becomes overwhelming, there is an increased risk the adult caregiver will abuse their elderly parent, perpetuating a sorrowful cycle. This cycle of abuse is not limited to children now caring for parents. Many workers in the helping trades were also abused as children. Under the stress of caregiving, antisocial behavior can rear its ugly head. Siblings, friends, and caregiver supervisors simply cannot close their eyes to this possibility.

Signs of Abuse and What to Do If You Suspect It

The warning signs of elder abuse include but are not limited to the following:

  • Unexplained bruises, marks, broken bones, abrasions, or burns
  • Bruises on or around the breasts or genital area (may signify sexual abuse)
  • A sudden change in alertness, unusual depression, or social withdrawal
  • Bedsores, poor hygiene, or significant weight loss
  • Belittling, threatening, and other uses of power and control by caregivers
  • Strained relationships and frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person

A more comprehensive list of signs can be found on the HelpGuide.org website.[5] Although you may be tempted to confront a potential abuser yourself, it’s better to let the authorities handle the situation.  If you suspect that abuse is taking place, you should report it to the Elder Abuse Hotline (800-677-1116) so that an investigation may be initiated.  Don’t allow your fear of meddling in someone else’s business stand in your way of protecting an elderly person who may be in harm’s way.

[1] http://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/abuse-and-addiction/acknowledging-elderly-abuse/the-greatest-danger-to-many-elders

[2] https://ncea.acl.gov/faq/index.html

[3] http://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/abuse-and-addiction/acknowledging-elderly-abuse/acknowledging-elderly-abuse

[4] https://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/20/a-risk-in-caring-for-abusive-parents/

[5] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/elder-abuse-and-neglect.htm