The following article on signs of elder abuse is reprinted with the permission of Sally Perkins , an American former home care and hospice manager.
Red Flags That Your Senior Loved One is a Victim of Elder Abuse
If only we lived in a world where people always responded to vulnerability with compassion and care. Unfortunately, elder abuse happens. Its hard to know how common it is, as researchers suspect that only about one in 14 cases ever get reported. The abuse can come at the hands of family members, hired caregivers, or from staff members in an assisted living or nursing home.
Keep in mind that many injuries and seemingly abnormal behaviors in seniors are common results of aging. Try to avoid seeing the possibility of abuse in every little behavioral change or scrape that you notice, but do be on the lookout for signs that could point to a larger issue.
Here are some of the most common symptoms that occur.
Frequent unexplained bruises
A bruise now and then is normal. You’ve probably got one somewhere on you right now and they occur more frequently in seniors due to their skin becoming thinner. If your loved one shows what seems to be an excessive amount of bruising and you have a hard time identifying a cause for them, then it’s worth starting to pay more attention.
Sprains or broken bones
As with bruising, these aren’t uncommon injuries for seniors to experience. Yet if they experience them a lot and don’t seem to have a good explanation for what happened, or seem uncomfortable providing an explanation, then you may have a bigger problem than typical aging-related clumsiness.
Cigarette burns are harder to obtain by accident and very likely point to elder abuse. Burns that appear to be caused by an iron are another serious indicator, as are burns likely caused by hot water. Â
How to Tell the Difference Between Abuse and Accidents
This is the part that’s a little trickier. Accusations of abuse are a big deal, so you don’t want to call the authorities on a family member or paid caregiver simply because your loved one is prone to falls or tends to burn themselves in the kitchen. On the other hand, of course you don’t want them to be stuck suffering abuse with no help.
There are a couple of signs that will help you gauge when injuries are intentional.
Conflicting Accounts of an Injuries Cause
If your loved one can’t seem to keep their story straight about how they got that burn, or if they seem uncomfortable providing any story or explanation at all, that could point to attempts to cover up the abuse due to fear or dependence on the abuser. Additionally, if their caregiver offers a different story than they do, that could be cause for concern.
Injuries Occurring Frequently
If every time you see your loved one they seem to have some new burn or scratch or bruise, then start paying close attention. Maybe you just have a clumsy loved one, but maybe those injuries are coming at the hands of someone else. Start to make a note of the type of injury and the date so you’ll have an easier time recognizing patterns and figuring out if it really is occurring at an abnormal rate.
Delay in Seeking Care for an Injury
Any time a senior has an accident that causes a serious injury, the first move should be to head to the hospital for care. Even for minor injuries, whoever’s around should go into problem-solving mode to help with bandaging or any other treatment needed. If injuries aren’t healing the way they should because they haven’t been properly treated, or because treatment wasn’t sought out until well after the injury first occurred, then that’s a problem.
If this happens once you should be worried and consider if there are any other signs pointing to abuse. If it happens multiple times, then it’s very likely that abuse is occurring and it’s time to step in.
What to Do if You Suspect Elder Physical Abuse
If you’re pretty sure abuse is occurring or at least have strong suspicions of it, then you need to take action.
Get your loved one somewhere safe.
If the abuser is a caregiver living in their home, then find another friend or family member’s place for them to stay. If you think it’s a staff member at a nursing home, talk to the managers there immediately. You want to make sure your loved one doesn’t continue to suffer abuse any moment longer.
Note: If your loved one has been hurt to the point where they need emergency care, your first step should be to call 911. This will ensure they get the immediate care they need and give you the opportunity to speak with the authorities and share your concerns.
Contact the proper authorities.
The National Center on Elder Abuse ( The Public Guardian and Trustee in British Columbia) offers a state-by-state directory of available resources you can use and agencies to report abuse to. If your loved one denies the abuse, you may be limited in how much you can do here, but it’s worth at least getting in touch with the proper authorities to see what they recommend and can do for your loved one now.
Encourage your loved one to attend therapy.
While the stigmas of therapy have faded for most people in the United States and Canada at this point, some seniors may still find the idea unpalatable. Nonetheless, abuse can have serious negative psychological effects, especially if the abuser is someone that your loved one trusted and loved. Do your best to convince your loved one to give therapy a try to work through their feelings from the experience.
The help of a skilled professional could not only help them better handle the pain they’re feeling from the experience, but can also help them understand how to recognize abuse if it every occurs again so they don’t silently live with it.
We will probably never live in a world where physical abuse of the elderly is entirely eradicated. But if everyone does their part to pay attention and keep an eye out for the people they love, we can do a better job of identifying the problem when it does occur and taking steps to stop it.
Your loved one has lived a long life and deserves to spend their final years comfortable. Make sure no one in their life takes that away from them.