What Is Elder Abuse? Elder Law Q&A

Ten percent of adults 65 and older experience elder abuse each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Elder abuse happens when a caregiver or another trusted individual causes physical, mental, or financial harm to an older adult by an act or omission

Posted on October 20, 2023

Types of Elder Abuse

Abuse of an elder may encompass financial exploitation, caregiver neglect, mental abuse, and physical or sexual mistreatment. An individual may experience multiple forms of abuse at once. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that abuse adversely affects the lives of older people, resulting in physical injuries, mental health issues, financial hardship, cognitive decline, and early death.

Financial Abuse

Of the 10 percent of older adults who experience abuse, roughly half are victims of financial abuse, per the DOJ. Financial abuse occurs when a person takes or misuses a person’s assets.

In many cases, the abuser is someone the older adult trusts or expects to act in their best interest, such as a family member or fiduciary. Individuals often rely on others to help manage their finances as they age. Those with health conditions such as dementia that affect personal decision-making and financial planning are particularly at risk. Financial abusers may exploit an older adult’s trust in them or misuse their authority as surrogate decision-makers for seniors.

Examples of elder financial abuse include the following:

  • Using an invalid or forged power of attorney to get control of an elder’s accounts
  • Having an older adult with dementia sign an estate planning or financial document that they do not understand
  • Taking valuables, such as jewelry, from the home of an older relative during a visit
  • Pressuring or coercing a senior to change their will to benefit the abuser
  • Denying an older person access to family money or personal resources
  • Refusing to provide an older person with money to preserve an estate for others

In a recent example of alleged financial abuse, the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein sued trustees of a fund set up by her husband, according to NBC News. The 90-year-old senator alleged that trustees committed financial abuse by refusing to give her the distributions to which she was entitled in an effort to preserve the amount her husband’s children would receive.

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      Caregiver Neglect

      Neglect also affects approximately half of abused elders. The DOJ reports that caregiver neglect is the most highly underreported form of mistreatment.

      Older adults residing in community settings and facilities often rely on others to help them with their basic needs. Caregivers help seniors with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed, managing meals, and taking medications.

      When an individual fails to provide for the needs of an adult in their care, whether intentionally or through oversight, the adult in care can suffer dehydration, bed sores, depression, anxiety, worsening health, premature death. Caregivers in nursing homes and private residences can cause harm through negligence, such as dropping a resident when moving in and out of bed, administering the wrong medication, or failing to provide adequate nutrition.

      Mental Abuse

      Psychological abuse affects slightly less than half of elder abuse victims. This type of abuse is nonphysical, but it can have a severe impact, often co-occurring with other types of abuse, such as neglect and financial coercion. Caregivers and family members can perpetrate mental abuse.

      The following exemplify mental abuse:

      • Ignoring or refusing to communicate with an elder
      • Yelling at an individual to insult them, put them down, or intimidate them into doing something
      • A guardian or surrogate decision-maker forcing their will on an older person
      • Name-calling and belittling
      • Preventing a senior from seeing friends and family and engaging in community activities

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        Physical and Sexual Abuse

        While less prevalent than other types of abuse, physical and sexual abuse can have severe consequences.

        The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines physical abuse as bodily harm. Physical abuse can include the following:

        • Hitting, pushing, and slapping
        • Using restraints, locking someone in a room, or preventing them from leaving
        • Physically intimidating an older adult without directly hitting them, such as by throwing an object across the room

        The NIA further explains that sexual abuse entails forcing an elder to engage in or watch sexual acts. Most sexual abuse occurs in nursing homes, according to NursingHomeAbuseGuide.org. Older women are six times more likely to experience sexual abuse than senior men.

        Preventing Abuse

        If you suspect that you or a loved one are facing elder abuse, the following resources can help.

        • Through its National Elder Fraud Hotline, the DOJ provides services to older individuals who could be victims of financial fraud.
        • State long-term care ombudsman programs advocate for residents of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Find your state’s program at ConsumerVoice.org.
        • The Victims of Crime Act Victim Assistance Program funds state programs to assist elder abuse victims. Locate your local Office for Victims of Crime.

        You can also learn more about your legal rights by consulting with an elder law attorney in your area. An attorney can help you identify and stop the abuse and advocate for financial compensation.

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