World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, as designated by the United Nations, was June 15.
While it’s good to have a day to be especially mindful of the reality of this abuse, it’s more important to remember that millions of older adults are forced to endure abuse daily.
Because such acts — the physical or sexual abuse of a vulnerable senior — are unimaginable for most people, it can be easy to think of them as isolated incidents, heinous things you hear about on the news occasionally, things that happen to other people (and certainly not very many).
But according to the National Institute of Justice, 10 percent of people over age 60 are victims of elder abuse. That includes physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse as well as neglect and abandonment. That’s 1 out of 10 of our parents, grandparents, neighbors, mentors and friends.
Sadly, the Minnesota Department of Health alone receives about 400 reports of elder abuse and neglect every single week.
And, unfortunately, that’s only part of the picture: Experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, as many as 23 cases go unreported.
And that’s not even counting the crippling isolation that many older adults face every day due to abandonment.
Less-visible acts of abuse are emotional and financial. An older person can endure these types of abuse for years on end, as they tend to be more nuanced rather than a single traumatic experience: Financial abuse can involve manipulating a person’s funds or assets. Emotional abuse can mean mistreating a person while also leading them to believe they’re dependent on the abuser for their survival.
Such treatment may happen so slowly or subtly that victims don’t even realize they’re being abused until their emotional, physical, mental or financial health is left in utter disarray.
So what can we do?
Up until this year, Minnesota was the only state to not have a licensing system for assisted living facilities. Fortunately, the Minnesota legislature changed that fact in May — and simultaneously passed legislation to strengthen protections for older and vulnerable adults in long-term care facilities.
Signed by Gov. Tim Walz in June, the bill, according to the Pioneer Press, includes two levels of licensure, separating assisted living facilities from facilities with dementia-care services.
It also provides protections for residents against retaliation; funding for the Office of the Ombudsman of Long-Term Care; a new task force to recommend improvements for safety and quality of care in long-term services; more state regulatory authority over assisted living facilities; and even a legal right for residents to install in-room cameras without immediately notifying the facility.
The bill’s licensing requirements, which go into effect Aug. 1, 2021, are strong, and establish high standards to ensure that residents, including those with dementia, receive the care they need and deserve.
While legislation is an important step toward the prevention of elder abuse, addressing abuse still requires vigilance and empathy from us as individuals. We need to know — and educate each other on — the warning signs of abuse, including unexplained injuries, emotional withdrawal and sudden changes in finances, appetite and hygiene.
Preventing elder abuse means being open and having conversations about it. We need to share the reality of its frequency. We have to directly address individual cases while also recognizing that there may be a sense of shame or embarrassment on the part of the abused. We need to respect the victims’ concerns about maintaining their autonomy and dignity while also knowing when professional intervention is needed.
There are solutions and resources available. If you’re concerned that someone is being abused, report your concerns to the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center at 1-844-880-1574.
No one deserves trauma or dehumanization. No one deserves to feel unsafe or hopeless in their own homes or communities.
When we feel unsafe, overwhelmed or scared, our homes, neighborhoods, families and communities should be places we can turn to — not havens for abuse.
We need to be each other’s protectors and advocates, especially for those who are vulnerable. If we’re lucky, we will all grow old one day, but if we can’t secure a future in which we’re supported and protected against inhumane treatment, why would we want to?
How can you recognize elder abuse?
You may see signs of physical abuse or neglect when you visit an older person at home or in an eldercare facility. Don’t mistake the problems as part of the aging process, dementia or medication side effects.
According to the National Institute on Aging, you may notice the person:
- Has trouble sleeping
- Seems depressed or confused
- Loses weight for no reason
- Displays signs of trauma, such as rocking back and forth
- Acts agitated or violent
- Becomes withdrawn
- Stops taking part in activities he or she enjoys
- Has unexplained bruises, burns or scars
- Looks messy, with unwashed hair or dirty clothes
- Develops bed sores or other preventable conditions
What can you do?
If you think someone you know is being abused — physically, emotionally or financially — talk with him or her when the two of you are alone. You could say you think something is wrong and you’re worried. Offer to take him or her to get help from the local authorities.
Elder abuse will not stop on its own. Someone else needs to step in and help. Many older people are ashamed to report mistreatment, or they’re afraid their report will get back to the abuser and make the situation worse. Remember, abuse can come from another resident, not just from someone who works in their senior-care facility.
Who can you call?
The Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center (MAARC) provides a toll-free number, 1-844-880-1574, the public can call to report suspected maltreatment of vulnerable adults.
If you’re reporting an emergency that requires immediate assistance, call 911, then call the MAARC.
The Star Tribune, in November 2017, published an award-winning five-part series — Left to suffer — about elder abuse in Minnesota, showing that hundreds of Minnesotans are beaten, sexually assaulted or robbed in senior-care homes every year.
The heartbreaking — at times haunting — report found that the abused adults’ cases were seldom even investigated, leaving families completely unaware that anything was wrong, including cases in which a roommate was the abuser. The series’ fifth and final installment details a radically different approach to stopping elder abuse in California.
Deb Taylor is the CEO of Senior Community Services, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that helps older adults and caregivers navigate aging to maintain independence and quality of life. Learn more at seniorcommunity.org.