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DiversityNursing Blog

Recognizing the Symptoms of Elder Abuse

Posted by Alycia Sullivan

Wed, Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:20 PM



The seriousness surrounding the problem of elder abuse in our society is often ignored or underrated. People have a tendency to put discussions of elder abuse on the backburner, in favor of more shocking stories that tend to grab the media spotlight.

Despite the lack of attention paid to the phenomenon of elder abuse, the American Psychological Association estimates that “4 million older Americans are victims of physical, psychological or other forms of abuse and neglect” every year. For every reported instance of abuse, experts estimate that 23 more go unreported.

There are many different types of elder abuse, but they can be broken into three categories:

1. Physical Abuse

Some of the most common signs of physical abuse include unexplained marks or injuries, such as bruises, pressure marks, welts, cuts, burns or broken bones. If the caregiver refuses to let you be alone with your loved one, this could also be an indicator of physical abuse. Other possible signs include broken glasses, ripped clothing and signs of restraint (such as rope marks around the wrist).

Remember, neglect is also a form of physical abuse. Some of the most common signs that an older adult is being neglected by a caretaker include sudden weight loss, malnutrition and dehydration. Unsanitary living conditions (like dirty sheets or bed bugs) are also indicators of neglect, as are untreated physical problems, like bed sores.

2. Emotional Abuse

The signs of emotional abuse include characteristics of depression, like uncharacteristic silence, loss of appetite and unexplained withdrawal from normal activities. Likewise, if you witness a caregiver acting in a way that is threatening, belittling or condescending, there’s a possibility that the person they’re charged with taking care of is experiencing emotional abuse. 

There are many people who don’t recognize emotional abuse or don’t think of it as a serious mistake. These individuals operate under the false assumption that emotional scars are somehow less violent or harmful than the physical ones. This is one of the characteristics of emotional abuse that makes it so dangerous—if you don’t recognize a problem as a problem, you can’t take steps to solve it.

3.       Sexual Abuse

                The most common signs of sexual abuse include an unexplained venereal disease or genital infection, unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding and bruises around the breast or genitals. Torn, stained or bloody underwear can also be an indicator of sexual abuse. 

                There are many reasons that sexual abuse can be difficult for many older adults to talk about. For some, it’s an issue of pride—they would rather suffer in silence than face the humiliation of admitting helplessness. Others are afraid of retaliation, and worry that they’ll be punished for speaking up. Whatever the specifics of the situation, it’s important to remember that the subject of sexual abuse is complicated and needs to be handled with sensitivity.


                The most important thing to remember when you suspect that someone you know is being abused is that speaking out is half the battle. The invisibility of elder abuse is what makes it difficult to prevent and punish. By calling attention to the situation, you’ve already laid a foundation for preventing future instances of elder abuse.

Linda Bright is a staff writer and a public relations coordinator for Given her experience as a former hospital administrator, she writes primarily about healthcare reform, patient rights and other issues related to the healthcare industry. In her free time, she enjoys Sudoku, spending time with her family, and playing with her poodle, Max.

Topics: APA, abuse, care, elderly, caregiver

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