Elder Abuse: The Difference Between Abuse and Neglect

May 6, 2016

Elder Abuse: The Difference Between Abuse and Neglect

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Every year, approximately 5 million elderly Americans are victims of various forms of abuse. It is possible that the statistic is understated, as only 1 in 23 cases of abuse is reported. This is alarming as it is a growing problem that remains hidden from the general public due to the sensitivity of the topic. As elder people become weaker physically, they are less able to defend themselves from abuse or bullying. If they have mental conditions, this leaves them especially vulnerable to be taken advantage of financially.

The Difference Between Elder Abuse and Neglect

While abuse does happen in nursing homes and other assisted care living facilities, the majority of abuse or negligence happens at home. Approximately 90% of the abusers are family members, which may include adult children, spouses, and partners. If you, or a loved one, are a victim of elder abuse or neglect, it is important to report the problem.

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is a knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk to a vulnerable adult. There are many different forms of elder abuse including physical assault, financial exploitation, and neglect. The most common forms are described below:

  • Physical abuse - Physical elder abuse is the use of force against a senior to inflict unnecessary pain or injury. This can include restraining the senior physically or chemically, via medication or drugs.
  • Emotional or psychological abuse - Emotional or psychological abuse can range from ignoring the elderly person to intimidation or threatening the individual. Speaking or treating the senior in a way that causes emotional pain or distress is abuse.
  • Sexual abuse - Sexual elder abuse is any type of non-consensual sexual act of any kind.
  • Financial abuse or exploitation - This type of abuse includes the unauthorized taking, misuse or concealment of funds, property, or the assets of a senior.
  • Healthcare fraud or abuse - Unethical doctors, nurses, hospital personnel and other professional care providers can carry out this type of abuse. Examples of abuse include not providing care but charging for it, overcharging for services or recommending fraudulent remedies for illness or conditions.
  • Caregiver neglect or abandonment - Elder neglect is the failure to fulfill caretaking obligations and can be intentional or unintentional. This includes abandonment or desertion of a senior by the person responsible for their care.

What is the Difference Between Abuse and Neglect?

Abuse and negligence are both forms of mistreatment, however, they differ slightly. In general, abuse is an intentional, knowing, deliberate act that causes harm or serious risk to a vulnerable adult. Abuse can be physical or emotional as described above and can also include exploiting the older adult or violating their basic rights.

While negligence is a type of abuse, a major difference is that neglect is generally a lack of action resulting in the failure to fulfill caretaking obligations. Neglect can be categorized as passive or active depending on caregiver intent.  Passive neglect is unintentional and can be the result of an overwhelmed caregiver or an undertrained caregiver. Active neglect is an intentional disregard for the needs of a senior.

What is Self-Neglect?

Self-neglect is a controversial topic when it comes to the topic of intervention. The question posed is, if a senior is competent but chooses to neglect their personal health or safety, is this abuse? And furthermore is involuntary intervention necessary?

Self-neglect is a type of mistreatment in which an elder fails to meet his or her own physical, psychological or social needs. There are a number of reasons that this may happen including dementia, illness, overmedication, depressions, substance abuse, isolation, and poverty.

If an individual is suffering from self-neglect you may notice that your older loved one is starting to lack basic hygiene, appear progressively unkempt, or their home is increasingly dirtier. In many cases, the individual will refuse help or assistance.

If an individual refuses care there are still other things that you can do to help them. One thing to do is continue to check on the elder. Sometimes they may feel ashamed about having to ask for help. You may even want to get a neutral party to express concern to the elder.

Self-neglect can be an indication of depression or other medical causes. Even though an elder’s doctor may not be able to share medical information with you, make sure that the doctor knows your concerns.

Reporting Elder Abuse

For various reasons, many seniors will not report their abuse, even if they are able to do so. If you suspect or witness elder abuse, do not hesitate to report it. No matter how frustrating some situation can be for caregivers, elder abuse is never okay. Older adults still deserve dignity and respect, so if you believe that a senior is being abused, do not be reluctant to report and stop the abuse, and get the abuser the help they need.

If you believe your senior or something you know is experiencing elder abuse please call 911 immediately or use these resources to report it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who usually fields elder abuse reports?

In most cases, the Adult Protective Services (APS) will field any elder abuse complaints. There are a variety of ways to contact APS including phone, email, and text messaging. Their website has a list of state elder abuse hotlines, but if it is an emergency, call 911.

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Who are usually the elder abuse offenders?

Elder abuse offenders can be family members, friends, neighbors, service providers, professionals, or strangers. However, 90 percent of abusers are family members which may include adult children, spouses, or partners. If you are concerned that an elder you know is being abused, find your state elder abuse hotline. If it is an emergency, call 911.

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