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Elder Abuse - What Is It? How Should Professionals in the Field and Others Respond?

Posted Jun 23 2009 6:55pm
They call it a silent problem. The act by a person who stands in a trust relationship resulting in the harm of the health and welfare of an older adult.

Its name is elder abuse and estimates show that it affects up to 10 percent of adults age 65 years of age or older. Some say that for every case reported, at least five cases go unreported! One study conducted in 2009 even estimated that 50 percent of people living with dementia experienced some kind of abuse.

Experts offer that the results of elder abuse can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Most disturbing is that its victims are three times more likely to experience premature death, according to a recent presentation given at the Institute on Aging.

"There is a reluctance to admit what is going on," said Erika Falk, Psy.D., Director, Geriatric Assessment Services, San Francisco Elder Abuse Forensic Center. At her recent talk, these very issues were addressed among industry professionals, educators and the general public. "There is shame, fear of losing independence and fears of being moved that are all associated with these events." Reasons that Falk sites for abuse going unreported or missed include what she calls ageism, disbelief and the ever-frightening assumption that "It's not my business." Others, she said, claim ignorance, feel that they might lose a client's trust of feel that nothing can help.

Frightening percentages gathered from data about the abusers shows that up to 90 percent of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members. Likewise, 50 percent were adult offspring, 20 percent were spouses/intimate partners, 48 percent women, 52 percent men and 30 percent were themselves over 60 years of age, according to the Institute on Aging.

Signs of abuse are subtle and often go overlooked or mistaken for "usual signs of aging." Additionally, outside signs shown by a potential abuser can include excessive concern about cost, attempts to dominate an elder, when one won't let an elder talk, verbal abuse and/or other controlling behavior.

As professionals in the field and concerned loved ones it is important to be aware of any signs and to be prepared to handle the situation before it escalates. To confront an individual who you are concerned might be experiencing abuse, there are examples of help and consolation that you can offer immediately. Let an individual know:

- "I am concerned about your safety and well being."

- "You are not alone."

- "The abuse is not your fault; only your abuser can stop the abusive behavior."

- "No one deserves to be abused; there is no excuse for abuse."

- "There are options and resources available."

For counsel, tips and to report suspected abuse in your family or community contact the Institute on Aging's Elder Abuse Prevention Program at 415-750-4180 ext. 222 or The National Center of Elder Abuse at

Additional resources include:

- The American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging:
- Family Caregiver Alliance:
- Administration on Aging:
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