What do we mean by Abuse of Older Adults?

Abuse of older adults refers to actions that harm an older person or puts at risk the person's health or welfare. Abuse of older adults is also known as senior abuse or elder abuse. According to the World Health Organization, abuse and neglect of older adults can be a single or a repeated act. It can occur in any relationship where there is an expectation of trust or where a person is in a position of power or authority.

Abuse is a Violation of Human Rights

Violations of rights means ignoring older adults' entitlement to basic rights and freedoms that other adults often take for granted. Violation of rights may include restricting visitors, or restricting the person's liberty, freedom, rights to privacy, and access to information or available community supports. Violation of rights can also include making decisions about the older adult's health, personal care, or finances without the person's consent (or where the person is not capable, the consent of his or her preferred or legally legitimate representative).

Types of Abuse

Abuse can be physical, emotional and verbal, or even sexual. It often involves financial misconduct, with or without neglect. Older adults often experience more than one form of abuse and neglect. For example, they may be emotionally and financially abused, or emotionally and physically abused. Some older adults may be neglected and have their rights violated.

Who are the Victims?

Abuse or neglect can happen to any older adult. In fact, contrary to commonly held beliefs, most older adults who experience abuse or neglect are mentally competent, are not dependent on other people, and do not require constant care. It can occur in any relationship, including one where there is an expectation of trust or where a person is in a position of power or authority. Abuse or neglect of older adults can take place in the home, in a residential care setting, or in the community.

Who are the Abusers?

Abuse of older adults most often involves family members; for instance a spouse, children, or grandchildren. However, abusers can also include friends, neighbours, paid care providers, landlords and staff, or any individual in a position of power, trust, or authority.

How big is the problem?

Canadian research indicates that between 4% and 10% of older adults experience one or more forms of abuse or neglect at some point in their later years from someone they trust or rely on. Under-reporting and inconsistencies in collecting information on abuse suggest that these figures are "the tip of the iceberg." Some older adults may be more likely to experience abuse or neglect, including those who are isolated, and those who have mental or physical impairments.

What are the Effects of Older Adult Abuse?

Abuse and neglect are a major source of stress and can have long-term effects on the health and well-being of older adults. The stress of abuse may trigger chest pain or angina, and may be a factor in other serious heart problems. High blood pressure, breathing problems, stomach problems (ulcers), and panic attacks are common stress-related symptoms among older people who experience abuse.

Abuse has a significant impact on people at any age, but older adults can be especially vulnerable. In general, older adults have less physical strength and less physical resilience than younger persons. Some older adults may be very frail, or already have disabilities or impairments that leave them particularly vulnerable. Older bones break more easily and take longer to heal. An injury or accumulation of injuries over time can lead to serious harm or death. For example, physical abuse may result in a hip fracture.

Many older adults experiencing abuse or neglect are isolated. Individuals who abuse or neglect older adults often threaten, harass, or intimidate them. For example, some abusers threaten to not let older adults see their grandchildren. Others may prevent older adults from having visitors, or may threaten to leave them alone.

As a result of abuse or neglect, older adults often experience worry, depression, or anxiety. These signs may be mistaken for memory loss or illness, when really they are the effects of stress or worry. An older adult may also feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment that someone in the family or someone close has harmed them.

Some abused older adults may start to eat less, use more medications or drink more alcohol to help cope with the emotional and physical hurt. They may have difficulty sleeping or sleep too much. Some abused or neglected older adults may lose interest in life or become withdrawn. Some may have suicidal thoughts.

Why Does Abuse Happen in Later Life?

Abuse and neglect may reflect a lack of understanding and knowledge about older adults and aging. Stereotypes and misconceptions about aging and older people may lead to ageist attitudes that older adults are not deserving of respect. Some people have negative beliefs about older people, while others do not treat older adults with respect.

Some people use violence and control in their relationships with people of all ages. Some people incorrectly feel they are entitled to an older adult's property, simply because the person is old, or because they are helping the older adult, or because of their position in the family. Some people experience personal problems or stresses that may increase their risk of harming or neglecting others. Some simply become overwhelmed or do not know more positive ways of relating. Limited financial resources may create family tensions that may lead to abuse or neglect.

There is no one simple explanation for why abuse or neglect occurs. Some situations involve spouses; some involve adult children or grandchildren or other relatives. Others involve paid caregivers or family members who are giving care.

Some abuse and neglect may:

  • reflect ageism,
  • be part of a cycle of family violence, or
  • be opportunistic behaviour.

It does not matter who the abuser is, or why the person is abusing an older adult. No one deserves to be abused or mistreated.

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