Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Danger of Elder Abuse

Every person – regardless of age - deserves to be safe from harm by those who live with them, care for them, or come in day-to-day contact with them.

In my last column, I started to broach the uncomfortable but real issue of elder abuse and the many forms in which it may occur.  In this column, I will go a step farther and discuss the very troublesome, often unspoken topic of physical and sexual abuse of elders.

I realize this can be a very difficult topic to discuss, but all too often physical and sexual abuse of an older person goes unreported to the point when it is too late.  It can be terrifying and embarrassing to report sexual or physical abuse for fear that no one will believe you, or worse, the abuser has threatened to do greater harm to you or your loved ones.

Further, seniors suffering from dementia may not be capable of giving or withholding consent, and may be unable to remember the unwelcome conduct.  That is why it is important for you to watch for and take any physical symptoms of sexual abuse seriously.

Let me be very clear: No one should be a victim of abuse.  No one should be afraid of reporting abuse.

I hope this column will assure you that resources are available for those who believe they know a victim of physical or sexual abuse or if you are a victim yourself.  There is nothing to fear from coming forward.  We have professionals ready to assist you, help heal both the physical and psychological wounds, and stop the abuse.

Together, let’s get a better understanding of what physical and sexual abuse is and how we identify the signs of abuse:

What is physical abuse?
Physical elder abuse is non-accidental use of force against an elderly person that results in physical pain, injury, or impairment. Such abuse includes not only physical assaults such as hitting or shoving but the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints, or confinement.

What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is any form of non-consensual sexual physical contact. It includes rape, molestation, inappropriate touching or any sexual conduct with a person who lacks the mental capacity to exercise consent.

Who are the abusers?
Perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse most often include personal attendants, employees of care facilities, family members (including spouses) and others.  Although it is rare, residents of senior living facilities sometimes assault fellow residents.

Who is at risk?

  •  The majority of identified victims are women; however, older men have been sexually abused in both domestic and institutional settings
  • Persons with physical or cognitive disabilities
  • Persons who lack social support and are isolated

What are the signs of physical or sexual abuse?
Physical signs may include injuries or bruises, while behavioral signs are ways victims and abusers act or interact with each other. If you suspect elderly abuse, but aren't sure, look for clusters of the following physical and behavioral signs.

Some of the signs listed below can be explained by other causes.  No single sign can be taken as conclusive proof. Rather, look for patterns or clusters of signs that suggest a problem.

  •  Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person
  • Changes in personality or behavior in the elder
  •  Unexplained signs of injury such as bruises, welts, or scars
  •  Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations
  •  Report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining dosages than it should)
  •  Broken eyeglasses or frames
  • Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists
  • Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone
  • Bruises around breasts or genitals
  • Unexplained venereal disease or genital infections
  • Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
  • Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing

Where do I report physical or sexual abuse?
If you are elderly or disabled and are being mistreated, help is available. If you know or suspect someone is being mistreated, you may be their only link to help. Trained professionals can investigate, offer helpful information and advice, and make referrals for services to stop abuse or treat its effects. It is better to come forward and end up being mistaken than not to come forward at all.

To report known or suspected cases of physical or sexual abuse on an older person, please contact your local police department immediately.  You may also contact Rhode Island’s Department of Elderly Affairs Protective Services Unit at 401.462.055 or the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General at 401.274.4400.  

For a list of additional resources, please visit

Together we can help reduce the incidence of elder abuse, but it’ll take more effort than we’re making now. Preventing elder abuse means we need to watch and listen to seniors and their caregivers, intervene when you suspect abuse, and educate yourself and others about how to recognize and report elder abuse.  Our seniors deserve nothing less than to love with the dignity they have earned. Let’s preserve that dignity.