Seniors are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in many ways. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened what was already a bad situation. It isolated seniors even more in 2020 and 2021, cutting their access to health care, counseling, and other services. The pandemic also stressed caregivers, causing some to take their woes out on senior citizens.
Elder abuse often goes unreported and unnoticed to the public. Of course, this lack of visibility does not diminish its seriousness. This guide addresses many types of elder abuse and how to prevent such abuses. It also helps seniors avoid becoming victims of scams and theft.
Expert Spotlight: Elder Abuse
What is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse can take many different forms. Essentially, it is the infliction of physical, verbal/mental, financial, or sexual harm on an older adult. It can also take the form of neglect from a caregiver, whether intentional or not.
The Different Types of Elder Abuse
Physical abuse includes slapping, biting, shoving, kicking, restraining, and even holding seniors under water. When caregivers withhold medications from elders or use drugs to subdue them, that is also physical abuse.
Sometimes, the abuse is unintentional. For instance, a caregiver might unthinkingly hit a senior hard to avoid the senior touching a hot stove. It counts as physical abuse since there are alternatives not resulting in pain or injury.
Verbal and mental abuse is multifaceted. One example is the silent treatment, occurring when a caregiver refuses to speak to the senior for hours or days. This type of treatment causes seniors a good deal of distress. In other cases, caregivers threaten, manipulate, intimidate, infantilize, yell, curse, or insult. They can combine many forms of mental, verbal, and physical abuse to isolate seniors from their loved ones.
Seniors can be susceptible to financial abuse when caregivers take over tasks such as paying the bills. Caregivers may also have access to seniors’ credit cards and bank accounts. In any case, financial abuse includes forging checks, forcing property transfers, stealing cash, embezzling money from bank accounts, and refusing seniors access to their money.
Elder fraud is another type of financial abuse. The FBI reports that scammers take advantage of seniors through tech support, lottery, home repair, romance, and impersonation scams, among others. Criminals do these scams online, in person, or over the telephone.
The Federal Trade Commission said in September 2020 that COVID-19 scams had robbed Americans of $145 million. Losses were worse for seniors 80 and older, averaging $655 per older senior compared with the $300 average loss per person. Fraudsters ripped people off through stimulus checks, false virus treatments, fake charities, and unemployment scams.
Sexual abuse takes many forms, including inappropriate touching, forced nudity, coerced posing for photos, and rape. Sexual abuse also occurs when caregivers force seniors to look at pornography or force the senior and a third party to interact in a sexual way.
Finding the right caregivers is so important because caregiver neglect happens more often than you would think. In general, it occurs when caregivers don’t meet an older person’s emotional, physical, social, health care, and medical needs. It can be intentional or unintentional. For example, a caregiver might purposefully refuse to bathe a senior. Meanwhile, unintentional neglect is often due to ignorance, immaturity, or a lack of resources. Take a situation in which family caregivers don’t realize a senior needs them to visit more often for everyday living and activities such as meals and baths.
Sometimes, older adults neglect themselves. They may refuse to go to the doctor when they clearly need to be seen, choose not to eat, or overdose on drugs and alcohol, for example. While this guide focuses on elder abuse perpetrated by others, self-neglect is worth noting.
If an elderly person practices self-neglect, you or someone close to that person may need to intervene. It’s a fine line between giving older loved ones the space to make their own decisions and waiting until such decisions become dangerous.
Elder Abuse: Signs to Look Out For
Chances are, you know someone who is a victim of elder abuse. The National Council on Aging indicates that it happens to one in 10 Americans 60 or older, and many cases go unreported. Pay close attention to these common signs.
- Bruise marks anywhere on the body
- Rope marks on wrists and/or ankles
- Refusal to seek medical help for injuries
- Nonchalant attitude toward any of these injuries when asked about them
- Isolated personality
- Odd changes in behavior
- Unresponsive and doesn't like to communicate with others
- Unreasonably suspicious or fearful of everyday things
- Lack of interest in social interaction
- Unusual ATM activity
- Large withdrawals from bank accounts
- Signatures on checks don't match up with the signature of the elder
- The elder's life circumstances don't match up with his or her financial assets
- Vaginal infections
- Vaginal or anal
- Bruised breasts and/or buttocks
- Torn or bloody undergarments
- Refusal to seek medical assistance when needed
- Visible weight loss
- Sunken eyes
- No basic hygiene, not enough water/food, or clean clothing to wear
- Alcohol bottles laying around the house
How to Reduce Elder Abuse & Assault
Elder abuse and assault happen for many reasons. For example, senior communities might not have enough staff members to efficiently care for all residents. The good news lies in the number of measures available to reduce elder abuse.
Have your elders stay nearby and stay close to family if possible.
People who feel isolated can end up getting depressed or wallowing in sadness and loneliness. They may feel unwanted, like a burden, or feel like others don't know they exist. By keeping your elders nearby, you can offer them assistance when you notice they need it, or they can easily ask you for help. This reduces the chance of abuse and neglect.
Keep in contact with them.
Regular contact allows you to keep tabs on loved ones’ daily activities and habits and offer help when they need it. Consider getting a medical alert system so that a call for help is only a button press away. You'll also be able to look out for changes that may signal abuse.
Encourage elders to attend community events.
As people get older, they may naturally feel more isolated. Attending community events helps them keep their social life active and stay in touch with things that are important to them.
Talk with them about scams.
Older people are especially vulnerable to fraud, so talk with your loved ones about common scams. For instance, some thieves read obituaries to get the names of survivors. Scammers then call these folks with surprise news of fake debts. Impersonator scams are common, too. Seniors need to watch out for people pretending to be Medicare, charity, or lottery reps.
Let your senior know to beware of relatives who call or email asking for money. A “grandchild” may call the senior and claim to need money for a car repair. “Don’t tell my parents! They’d ground me,” the child might say. Make sure seniors have your contact information handy so they can verify claims.
If your senior loved ones use email and social media, review phishing scams with them. When elders have people keeping them informed, they are less likely to get conned by someone trying to steal their identity or money.
Don't allow the elderly to live with others who you know are or may be abusive.
This one is self-explanatory but worth mentioning. Someone with a repeated history of violence or abuse may fall back into old patterns, especially with someone who is vulnerable and weak. Keep your elders away from these people.
Make sure they stay active.
Activity is important for everyone, no matter the age. Exercise curbs depression and activates “happy hormones.” Staying active in old age can also prolong life and decrease chances of abuse.
Put them in control of their finances as much as possible.
It’s normal for older people to entrust another family member to help manage their finances. However, seniors should understand as much as possible where their money goes. Communicate with them what you’re doing with their money, like paying utilities and the rent.
Checks and balances are one way to ensure that an unscrupulous person doesn’t get unfettered access to a senior’s assets. For example, you could have multiple people listed on financial powers of attorney documents.
Be selective with caregivers.
Caregivers are not created equally, nor are family members always a better choice. If you choose among family members or friends, prioritize balance. Stressed caregivers are not good for anyone, so create a system that doesn’t burden one or two people with all of the caregiving. If you hire paid professionals, do a thorough screening, and observe how the caretaker interacts with/treats the older person. Keep tabs on the elder's behavior and any changes in mood or appearance, as these might be signs of abuse.
Take Advantage of Support Groups
. Support groups allow caregivers or seniors to connect with others facing similar issues, and abuse is less likely to occur and go unnoticed. Seniors who are a part of a social circle are less likely to become victims of abuse, and they can speak with one another about any tensions in their lives.
What is Elder Theft?
Elder theft includes monetary, identity, and home theft. The Federal Trade Commission says that 1.7 million reports of fraud were made in 2019, with more than 647,000 of these cases being imposter scams. Seniors, especially those aged 70 to 79, and 80 and older, experienced steep median losses from fraud and identity theft crimes. Read on to find out more.
Financial exploitation is one of the most common forms of elder theft. Misuse or mismanagement of a senior's money and investments are prime examples. Monetary theft usually involves trusted people such as caretakers, bank employees, doctors and nurses, friends, neighbors, and even pastors. On top of this, strangers and “professionals” constantly try to scam people into buying false services or donating money to fake charities.
Elder theft comes with many dire consequences. Seniors may end up devastated and experience loss of trust and security. Some even lose their home. Seniors may be engulfed with feelings of fear, guilt, worthlessness, and self-doubt. Folks left with little to no money may have to become reliant (or more reliant) on other people or the government. To prevent monetary theft:
- Educate elders on common scams such as the “fake grandchild” one we touched on earlier. The FTC lists these as the top 10 fraud categories:
- Imposter scams
- Telephone and mobile services
- Online shopping and negative reviews
- Prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries
- Internet services
- Travel, vacation, and timeshare plans
- Foreign money offers and counterfeit check scams
- Business and job opportunities
- Health care
- Advance payments for credit services
- Build checks and balances into seniors’ financial affairs. Avoid having all of the money and all of the power (legal, financial, and otherwise) rest in the hands of one person.
- Keep a close eye on funds. Ideally, you’d know quickly whether a bank statement is normal or has a few suspicious transactions.
Unfortunately, there are many ways criminals can steal identities. Some examples include:
- Stealing Mail – Mail often includes bank and credit card statements, checks, and tax information. Identity thieves rummage through the trash for these “goodies.”
- Phishing Online – Some emails are scams but look legitimate. These e-mails may ask seniors to “verify their information” by clicking on a link and entering data such as their account number or password. These phishers just got verified personal information. Yikes!
- Sending Mail – Identity thieves also send mail to seniors in a scheme similar to phishing. These documents appear to come from trusted sources such as banks, charitable organizations, or well-known companies. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between what is legitimate and what isn't, and seniors can fall for a call to action such as writing a check. Usually, the mail even has an “official” letterhead with authentic-looking logos and trademarks.
- Cold Calling – Seniors may receive phone calls from “charities” or “banks.” For instance, someone may pretend to be a bank representative who needs to verify account information. The fake representative stokes fear by saying the account is going to be closed if the account isn’t verified.
- Recording Credit Card Information – With skimming devices or observational skills, thieves can steal credit card numbers and other information. They can rack up huge bills before seniors become aware that their identity has been compromised.
To prevent identity theft, it is important to practice the following:
- Shred mail that has personal information before you toss it. The mail can be financial/bank statements, credit card statements, and medical bills.
- Keep a close eye on credit card statements and track spending. You should be able to tell within a few seconds if something doesn't look right or if someone has been making fraudulent purchases.
- Cut up cards you don't use before throwing them away.
- Get a PO box. To be extra safe, use it as the sender address.
- Have checks delivered to the bank or PO box rather than the home address. Even better, encourage seniors to stop using checks. They contain information such as bank account numbers and home addresses.
- Don’t make copies of the senior’s driver’s license. Anyone with a copy has access to the senior’s address. From there, it could be a matter of time before thieves get bank account numbers and other personal data.
- Never reveal seniors’ personal information unless you know the receiver and have a good reason. Encourage seniors to do the same.
Older people tend to be more vulnerable, so thieves are drawn to their houses. To keep seniors safe, secure their homes and carefully select a caregiver if you plan on having one. Caregivers participate in some home thefts and make away with valuables, money, and even identities.
Considerations for Protecting a Home
- Get a dog. Barking, regardless of the dog’s size, scares off potential criminals. Of course, dogs pose tripping risks, so train these canine companions
- Install a home security and alarm system. Most modern home security systems come with a variety of video options, including video doorbells and outdoor cameras. They provide more visibility and perspective of what's going on in different areas of the home. You can keep a close eye on any suspicious behavior from your phone. If you want, you can set the system up so that another trusted family member helps you monitor.
- Make sure the doorstep area is well-lit at night. Thieves like to frequent dark areas where they think they won't get caught. Lights coming on suddenly scare off a lot of thieves.
- Keep your doors and windows locked, especially at night. These actions hinder easy access into the home.
- Become friends with the neighbors. If criminals feel like they might be watched, they go elsewhere. Neighbors may notice activities such as someone going through the trash. Plus, many are happy to bring in the mail for a senior with mobility issues.
- Ask for references before letting contractors and caregivers in. Try to work with reputable companies only. They’re also more likely to have the resources to run background checks on their workers. Keep an ongoing eye on valuables in the house. Check that they’re where they should be.
- Watch what goes into the trash. Criminals are notorious for rummaging through the trash for packaging that signals something valuable in the home. For example, a TV box indicates there’s a new, valuable TV inside to steal. Cut up this type of packaging and shred documents with personal information.
- Ask seniors to contact you before accepting help from strangers. Many con artists go door to door with a friendly face offering to help with mowing the lawn, painting the walls, trimming the trees, you name it! They often come with another person. One stays outside to chat with the senior while the other person sneaks inside. Encourage seniors to answer the door only to people they know. If the house has a security system or even just a doorbell camera, you can track who is hanging around.
- Use a safe that's bolted down somewhere inconspicuous so it cannot be easily removed. Place valuables here rather than leaving them around in the house in plain sight. A portable safe is trickier, as seniors might move it around. Still, it is better than nothing.
- Keep valuables out of plain sight from the street. If people can easily peek into the window and see a large television or something expensive, they may break in. Remind seniors to keep their curtains drawn, especially when they are not home.
- Maintain the home and yard. Mow the lawn, water the grass, touch up the shutters, and take the mail in. Make the residence look like someone lives there and cares enough about the home to keep it secure.
- Ensure that the street number is visible from the street. Doing this helps authorities find the senior’s home quickly in case of an emergency.
- Check that alarms and lights are tamper-proof. Otherwise, burglars could turn alarms and lights off on their way in.
- Set a timer for lights to go on and off or get smart lights so the home always looks occupied. Burglars prefer to break in when no one is home.
- Close the garage door fully before going out. A half-open garage door means an easy access point to the house. If you have a smart home, consider smart garage door openers.
We hope this guide has been helpful, whether you’re a senior or have loved ones who are seniors. Some of the precautions listed above require more than a bit of effort and money but are worth it.
You can never be too prepared, so check out these resources.