Talking to Your Loved One About Elder Abuse
According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), 1 in 10 seniors have experienced some form of elder abuse. Whether it’s financial, sexual, physical, emotional abuse, or even neglect, nearly 5 million seniors are in danger of sustaining abuse each year. Unfortunately, these numbers may be higher than we even realize — many cases of elder abuse sadly go unreported.
As one of the most terrible problems faced by the world of senior care, it’s also one of the most difficult things to address for many seniors and their families. Often times, it comes down to a lack, or even an inability to communicate these abuses for various reasons. Seniors suffering from mental illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia may be stifled in their communicate of abuse — with others possibly unaware that any abuse is really taking place at all.
First Steps to Addressing Elder Abuse
One of the first steps to correctly identify elder abuse is to recognize the signs and symptoms, both of which vary greatly in terms of the type of abuse and the traits of an individual. And yet, sometimes there are no outward signs of abuse or it can be hard to tell if common bruises are anything more than the day-to-day bumps we all sustain. For these reasons, it’s important to keep communications open and honest with your loved one — especially if you think they may be frightened to reveal any possible abuses. Learning ways to start the conversation may vary from one person to the next, although there are some tips when it comes to getting to the root of any issue.
Unless you know it will be effective, asking someone outright whether or not they’ve experienced elder abuse may have the potential to make things more difficult. Elder abuse is a very sensitive topic, so you’ll need to assess each situation individually.
First, it’s best to talk with your elderly loved one in a secure location where they feel comfortable speaking freely. Keep in mind that this could pose problems — abusers typically isolate their victims to prevent others from interacting with them. You’ll want to find a way to get to a safe location without raising the suspicions of someone who may be committing the abuse. This could be as simple as an open public place, a cafe, or a shopping mall — essentially anywhere someone can feel safe enough to talk about the issue away from their abuser.
Getting to the Root of Abuse
Now, addressing the subject is one of the hardest aspects to the whole process. Before bursting into the subject out of nowhere and making your loved one feel uncomfortable, try to bring up your concerns with how your loved one has been treated. Ask them about their feelings toward the person (or people) in question. Be open and nonjudgmental while listening to their perspective on the matter, showing visual signs of affirmation like eye contact, nodding, and by maintaining a non-threatening posture.
Here are some possible ways to ask about someone’s experience of abuse:
• How is everything at home?
• What is it like living there?
• I’m worried when you say you feel (sad, worried, frightened, etc.)
• Tell me more about (the subject in question)
• Do you feel safe?
• Is there anything you’d like to share with me?
• Are you afraid of anyone?
• Do you feel isolated?
• Do you have enough money for what you need? (Food, toiletries, other resources)
• Have you ever signed documents that were unclear or ambiguous to you?
• Would you like help with this problem?
• What can I do to help?
Often times, people who have been the subject of abuse tend to hold on to feelings of shame or fear, feeling as though they in some way deserve their current state of being as a coping mechanism. Do your best to reassure them that the abuse is in no way their fault and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Remind them that you are here to help, doing your best to offer up solutions that will help them find a safe, loving environment.
If your suspicions are eventually confirmed, follow through with your promises the best you can and help your loved one gain access to the support they need. If any medical attention, counseling or legal actions are required you can reach out to any of the following:
• National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
• U.S. Department of Justice: Elder Justice Initiative
• American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging
It’s never an easy subject, especially if your senior loved one is unable to care for themselves and is, therefore, reliant on others. No one deserves to be subject to abuse and the first step to making sure that this doesn’t happen is to start the conversation openly and honestly. If you are uncomfortable in addressing abuse by yourself, reach out to other family members or professionals for guidance.