Florida is home to a large population of retirees. Characteristically, elderly individuals rely on family, friends, and service providers for care and support. They may require support while living at home or after taking up residence in a nursing facility. Because of their increased dependence on others, they are at risk of elder abuse (also called “adult abuse”). Elder abuse is an insidious form of violence, exploitation, and neglect. Due to the gradual nature of this type of abuse, often, instances are unreported by victims and unnoticed by others.
If you suspect abuse or neglect of an older adult, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873) or report your suspicions online.
Prevention of elder abuse should take precedence among Florida residents of any age. We owe it to our families, friends, and neighbors to understand elder abuse. It is important to spread awareness, so people know how to spot elder abuse and what to do about it. In this blog post we will identify some of the conditions that could signal abuse of an elder. Additionally, we will acknowledge situations with a high prevalence of elder abuse.
Of course, not all of the conditions and situations described below definitively indicate the occurrence of elder abuse. However, we hope that by spreading awareness, people may take a closer look if a situation seems off. Taking the time to investigate potential elder abuse will help to deter future elder abuse. To discuss the specifics of your case, schedule a free consultation with the elder abuse lawyers at Dolman Law who have past experience handling similar cases.
Categories of Elder Abuse
According to the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County, Florida (ADRC Broward), numerous forms of abuse and neglect are harmful to elders. Experts in the field of elder-care answer the questions “what is elder abuse” in the following general categories:
- Physical abuse. Physical abuse includes “pushing, striking, slapping, kicking, pinching, restraining, shaking, beating, burning, hitting, [or] shoving.”
- Emotional or psychological abuse. Elder individuals may experience “verbal berating, harassment, intimidation, threats of punishment or deprivation, criticism, demeaning comments, coercive behavior or isolation from family and friends.”
- Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse consists of any type of nonconsensual sexual conduct. Conduct may include unwanted or inappropriate touching, rape, sodomy, sexual coercion, sexually explicit photographing or videoing, and sexual harassment.
- Financial or material exploitation. Exploitation often consists of theft or fraudulent use of an elderly person’s financial resources or assets. For example, caregivers may drain bank accounts or trick an older person into signing checks or other legal documents.
- Neglect. Neglect occurs when someone has an obligation to care for an elderly person. When neglect occurs, the caregiver fails to provide an adequate level of care or service. Often, elderly individuals are vulnerable and exposed to harm or victimization without adequate care.
To be on the lookout for elder abuse, you must consider all forms of potential harm. Elder abuse is not limited to conduct that causes physical harm to older Floridians. Be aware of all potential forms of abuse that could transpire when others are responsible for the care of the elderly. Recognizing the signs earlier enough could possibly prevent someone from experiencing such a tragedy.
Conditions Signaling Potential Elder Abuse
The most effective means of preventing elder abuse is to have regular contact with elderly Floridians and those caring for them. Elder abuse tends to remain hidden. It is easy to assume the effects of elder abuse are the natural results of aging. Increasing the presence of family, friends, and neighbors lowers the chances that elder abuse will go unnoticed.
Even with regular contact with an elderly friend or loved one, concerned citizens cannot rely on them to report abuse. The elderly may be reluctant to report abuse for many reasons. In some cases, an elderly person is simply too incapacitated to make a report. In others, the elder abuse victim fears for his or her safety. At times, the abuser may also be the person to whom the elderly person might ordinarily report abuse. And, of course, there are instances in which the elderly person is not even aware the abuse has happened. For instance, in cases of financial exploitation.
Below are detailed descriptions of observable conditions that could signal each of the types of elder abuse described above. We caution our readers, again, that these conditions do not definitively prove elder abuse (absent witnessing abuse happen first-hand). However, they absolutely justify taking a closer look into the wellbeing of an elderly friend, neighbor, or loved one.
Conditions Signaling Potential Physical Abuse
One might think physical abuse would be the easiest form of elder abuse to spot. However, that is not necessarily the case. The very nature of getting older involves declining overall health and poor mobility. It can be difficult to differentiate the natural effects of aging from the sorts of bruises, cuts, abrasions, and broken bones that could signify physical abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidental falls commonly cause injury in adults over the age of 65. Would you know the difference between injuries caused by a fall and those caused by a physical abuser?
Some conditions to look for that can distinguish physical abuse from a merely accidental injury in older adults include:
- Bruises, cuts, or fractures that do not fit the explanation given for how they occurred;
- Signs of physical restraint, such as markings on wrists;
- A sudden change of behavior toward a particular caregiver, such as expressing fear or being withdrawn around that person;
- Evasiveness on the part of a caregiver or others close to the elderly person in explaining an injury; or
- Unexplained refusal to allow family members or friends access to the older person.
Keep in mind, too, that physical abuse also includes other actions that harm an elderly person’s physical health. For example, withholding needed medication or, conversely, dispensing more medication than prescribed. Therefore, lab reports or medical assessments showing sudden, unexplained changes in a person’s health may also signal physical abuse.
Conditions Signaling Potential Emotional or Psychological Abuse
As people age, their cognitive and emotional capabilities change and often deteriorate. It is common for elderly Floridians to be diagnosed with dementia. Dementia may cause elders to experience forgetfulness, wider-than-usual swings in mood, and confusion. The effects of cognitive decline may precipitate other coping mechanisms that can affect the older person’s behavior. Often, cognitive issues result in an elder’s lack of desire to socially interact with others.
The consequences of emotional or psychological abuse may be perceived as natural cognitive decline. Because psychological abuse can accelerate or amplify those natural changes, it can be particularly difficult to spot. Emotional or psychological abuse is rarely witnessed firsthand. Nursing home staff, for example, will likely engage in psychological abuse behind closed doors when family and friends aren’t present. To separate signs of emotional or psychological abuse by a caregiver from ordinary emotional and psychological changes, look for:
- Extreme emotional upset or agitation (beyond what is historically “normal” for the person), particularly if the upset is sudden and unexplained;
- Extreme withdrawal or refusal to communicate with others;
- A marked, negative change in mood or affect in the presence of a particular person, such as clamming up when a caregiver comes around;
- Negative self-talk that seems unusual for the elderly person, such as calling oneself names (“idiot,” “stupid,” etc.); and
- Odd or troubling comments about a caregiver’s behavior or statements (e.g., “John gets so angry at me” or “Jane said you weren’t coming to visit me anymore”).
Conditions Signaling Potential Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse of elderly Floridians is a particularly heinous form of elder abuse. Sexual abuse is particularly difficult to spot. Often, family and friends lack access to information or the ability to observe conditions that could signal sexual abuse. It is important for medical and nursing providers to regularly and vigilantly examine those in their care. Conditions signaling potential sexual abuse of an older Floridian may include:
- Bruising around the breasts or genitals;
- Genital or anal bleeding (sometimes evidenced by bloody undergarments or bedsheets);
- Medical checkups that diagnose sexually-transmitted disease;
- Behavioral changes similar to those consistent with emotional or psychological abuse (see above); and
- Odd or troubling comments about sexual topics.
Identifying sexual abuse of the elderly is complicated by the fact that many older adults remain sexually active. Sexual activity among residents of nursing homes is not uncommon. It may be difficult to determine the line between consensual sexual behavior by older adults and inherently, non-consensual sexual abuse.
Conditions Signaling Potential Financial or Material Exploitation
As Floridians age, they tend to become increasingly reliant on others to manage their personal affairs. Of course others handle their more complex affairs, such as estate planning, but also the mundane management of day-to-day expenses. Elderly individuals are vulnerable to exploitation by those they trust the most, such as family members and financial advisors.
Not only are elders particularly vulnerable, there are often disputes between family members concerning the division of their older family member’s estate. Distinguishing financial or material exploitation from sensible or poor financial management and planning can be difficult. Watch for these signs of exploitation:
- An elderly person granting powers of attorney or other significant financial/legal authorities to someone they have just met;
- Sudden or drastic changes in an elderly person’s financial arrangements, e.g., bank location, credit rating, or estate plan;
- Lack of transparency about financial decisions from the person delegated with the authority to manage an elderly person’s affairs;
- An elderly person making ill-advised or complicated investments or taking out loans against assets for the benefit of others; or
- Falling behind on routine periodic payments, such as heat and electricity, when resources should be available to cover them.
The reality is that scammers and fraudsters target elderly Americans, taking advantage of their vulnerable state. You must closely monitor an elder’s financial circumstances to prevent them from falling victim to exploitation.
Conditions Signaling Potential Neglect
Vigilantly watching for signs of affirmatively abusive behavior alone will not protect an elderly family member. It is equally important to make sure elderly family members receive the care they need and deserve from their caregivers. Oftentimes, caregivers’ inactions or carelessness will lead to a decline in an elderly person’s physical, mental, or financial condition. Consciously allowing an elderly individual’s declining condition to worsen is also a form of abuse. Neglect can be just as harmful as other, more overtly-abusive acts.
Fortunately, spotting the telltale signs of neglect is in some ways easier than spotting clear signs of affirmative abuse. However, neglect happens more often and involves less-obvious, gradual harm than affirmative abuse. Signs of neglect to look-out for include:
- Sudden and severe changes in an elderly person’s basic physical condition, such as signs of dehydration or malnutrition;
- A decline or lack of personal hygiene;
- Health conditions that go untreated, especially preventable conditions such as bed sores;
- Frequent falls or injury-causing incidents that should not occur repeatedly; and
- Finding the elderly adult left alone or isolated for extended periods of time.
What to Do if You Suspect Elder Abuse
Again, if you suspect elder abuse, don’t hesitate to call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873) or report your suspicions online. After reporting suspected elder abuse through the hotline, you will be put in touch with appropriate authorities in your area.
Obviously, your first priority must be to protect the elderly individual’s physical safety. If reporting to a helpline is not an option, you can always call 9-1-1. We encourage you to call 9-1-1 if you believe a senior is in imminent danger of harm.
In seeking help for suspected elder abuse, provide as much detail to authorities as possible. You should provide any documentation or other records you have of the suspected abuse. When deciding whether to inform the abused elder that you suspect abuse, use your best judgment. You want to refrain from taking any action that may further jeopardize an elder’s physical safety.
After you are certain an elder’s safety will not be compromised, you may then discuss your suspicions with the victim. You should encourage the victim to speak with an elder abuse attorney in your area. Victims of elder abuse have rights to compensation for their injuries. Seeking legal advice may protect or recover assets wrongfully taken from them. An experienced elder law attorney can help you the elder victim evaluate how to enforce those rights.
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