Elder Abuse Takes Many Forms, Often Goes Unreported

By: Cristina Mestre

This Saturday marks the 8th annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Just last week, UPMC experts participated in an event here in Pittsburgh, where the state of Pennsylvania highlighted their new elder abuse hotline.  Moreover, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has proclaimed June as Elder Abuse Awareness month, noting everyone in the state has a responsibility to protect the safety, health, dignity and rights of older adults through education and outreach.
Above, elder abuse expert Scott Beach, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, discusses what constitutes elder abuse, the prevalence of abuse and the importance of awareness.
Below, we talk to Larry Frolik, professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, to learn more about the kinds of abuse and what can be done about it.

Q: What exactly is “elder abuse”?

A: According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, definitions of elder abuse vary on a state-by-state basis and among researchers studying the problem. In general, community or domestic elder abuse refers to mistreatment and/or neglect by a caregiver, family member, friend or neighbor. Institutional abuse refers to mistreatment that occurs in facilities such as a nursing home or assisted living facility and is often carried out by someone with a contractual obligation to protect or serve the older adult.
Abuse can be physical, financial (e.g., stealing), emotional, or even sexual. Abuse differs from a criminal act, which is considered to be a one-time incident, whereas stealing from an older adult on a regular basis would be considered abuse.
In my work at Pitt, I study, write about and teach law and aging issues – and one of the important issues about growing old is that people become more vulnerable when they have mental decline and have dementia.  This can put people at risk to become abused and neglected by those they depend upon.

Q: How prevalent is the problem of elder abuse?

A: Unfortunately, a lot of elder abuse goes unreported, so statistics vary. Additionally, when the abuse is perpetrated by a family member, relatives are hesitant to report a family member and get them in trouble.  Plus, some older adults may be willing to tolerate the abuse because if they lose the help of their abuser, no one is left to help them. They are unfortunately often stuck with no choice.
Overall, though, the estimate is that hundreds of thousands of older adults are exploited, abused and/or neglected every year, and no one is immune. Some estimates state that only 20 percent of elder abuse crimes are reported.

Q: What is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD)?

A: WEAAD was launched in 2006 by the World Health Organization at the United Nations and the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. The day promotes a better global understanding of neglect and abuse of older adults by raising awareness of what constitutes abuse and what can be done to prevent and stop abuse. WEAAD also supports the United Nations International Plan of Action that “acknowledges the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue.”

Q: What can be done to stop elder abuse?

A: Anyone who observes abuse or neglect should report it to their county’s adult protective services department. The local county area association on aging is also source of support for older adults and their loved ones. What’s most important is to take a step forward and make a phone call, don’t just avert your eyes. The key is trying to get the older person into the system so the public authorities are aware of the problems.
If an older adult is cognitively aware, they don’t have to put up with abuse; there is always a better way to get the help they need. Government resources such as PA’s aging abuse hotline or senior centers are great, but there are also social support services such as churches or other religious groups. Neighbors can also step up and help, or an older adult may seek an elder abuse attorney for counsel. The first way to deal with elder abuse is to not put up with it.