When Linda (not her real name) arrives at the nursing home for her weekly visit with her mother, she is surprised to find her sleeping. In the middle of the day? Rousing Mom, Linda helps her walk from the bed to the chair, taking notice of her frailty.

“Mom, have you been eating?”, Linda asks.

Refusing to look directly at Linda, Mom simply shakes her head. But Linda is undeterred.

“Mom, what is wrong? Talk to me!” Still, no response.

Panicking, Linda embraces her mother and feels her pull away slightly, her face wincing. “What is going on?” she wonders fearfully.

Linda soon discovered her mother was suffering from both physical and mental abuse, a scenario that affects millions of America’s elderly citizens.

Elder abuse occurs when an elderly person is neglected, deliberately harmed, or placed in harm’s way.  You might assume that abuse occurs most often at the hands of strangers. But the majority of cases involve sub-par care provided by a family member, and many of these cases are unreported. Sadly, the elderly are more vulnerable to unprincipled individuals wanting to take advantage of the mentally and physically frail. As well, some caregivers are simply ill-equipped to manage the proper care of an elderly person.

5 Common Signs of Possible Elder Abuse

The case of Linda’s mother was confusing and it took some time for Linda, working with nursing home staff, to get all of the facts. Had she fallen? Was she hurting herself? Or was it abuse? And if it was abuse, who was responsible?

Many cases like this one require time and investigation; some may even require help from a knowledgeable elder law attorney.

Knowing the common signs of abuse can help:

  1. An extreme change in finances: the caregiver may be stealing, or the elder may be bullied into giving money away, changing power of attorney or rewriting the will.
  2. Depression or withdrawal: A loss of independence can trigger depression. Dementia may also lead to anger and depression because the elder feels confused about changes.
  3. Conflicting stories: The elder may report circumstances – threats, for example – while the caregiver may tell a different story or refer to the elder in a derogatory way “(She’s just crazy.”)
  4. Communication difficulties: While caregiving is certainly stressful, a caregiver’s unusual defensiveness or a complete unwillingness to discuss the elder’s needs may signal trouble.
  5. Unexplained injuries: Abused elders often feel ashamed, worthless or stupid. If the elder is mentally incapacitated, awareness of the abuse is diminished. If frequent, unexplained injuries or signs of sexual abuse appear, investigate immediately.

Is it Normal, or Is It Abuse?

To avoid talking about or admitting to possible abuse, the elderly person may stop communicating about daily activities, or may no longer participate in once-enjoyable activities. Abuse can sometimes cause repetitive behaviors, (rocking, teeth sucking), which can be misinterpreted as “normal” increasing dementia.

As well, abuse is not always obvious. Forcing a senior to watch sexual videos or look at sexual images, denying medications or over-medicating, placing the senior in restraints, or emotionally berating the elderly person are all forms of abuse.

However, the most common form of elder abuse is the failure to provide for the elderly person’s basic needs for food, water, rest and medications. Whether intentional or accidental, by law this is considered abandonment. For example, a formerly fastidious elder suddenly appears slovenly, utilities are turned off, the elder appears dehydrated or ravenous, or medical conditions, such as bedsores, appear. These are more scenarios may be indications of abuse.

In every case, always err on the side of caution. Ask questions of the elder and any caregivers. If your suspicions of abuse continue, contact the U.S. Administration on Aging’s National Center on Elder Abuse at 800-677-1116 to get help connecting with elder protective services.

If you suspect elder abuse in Missouri, seek help from a qualified elder law attorney.