Elder Abuse Is on the Rise in the United States: What Can We Do to Stop It?

Female Care Worker Mistreating Frightened Elderly Man a victim of elder abuse

The issue of elder abuse is one that we can not ignore. The most obvious reason for any increase in cases of abuse is the rapidly increasing elderly population. According to the United States Census Bureau, the U.S. is set to see a rise of almost 80% in its number of senior citizens (aged 65+) compared to 2001. Furthermore, we will see an increase of almost 70% increase in the number of over 85s in 2025 compared to 2001.

According to a study performed by the House Government Reform Committee’s Special Investigations Division, nursing homes have received an increased level of citations for violations every year since 1996. In 2016, there were approximately two million reports of elder abuse in America.

What Is the Extent of the Abuse?

One of the biggest issues is that the overall extent of elder abuse is unknown, as the figure cited above is almost certainly lower than the true number. Getting detailed and accurate figures is a tough process because many victims are too embarrassed or afraid to speak out.

Another fear is being cut off from the family because relatives of victims commit a substantial number of misdeeds. In many cases, the victim is too confused to understand what is happening, a common problem amongst dementia patients.

Sadly, a lot of abuse cases come forth by pure chance. For example, a hairstylist in Ohio noticed that an elderly client was wincing in pain. After gentle questioning, the senior citizen admitted that a relative punched her in the ribs. These issues mean that the statistics offered by the Nursing Home Abuse Center website are potentially inaccurate:

  • Local and state authorities only learn about 7% of elder abuse incidents in a domestic setting
  • Authorities received reports of only 4% of financial exploitation cases; this percentage equates to around five million unreported cases per annum
  • Family members/relatives are responsible for around approximately 90% of cases
  • 47% of Dementia patients suffer some form of abuse.

What Are the Most Common Forms of Elder Abuse?

The most obvious problem is the issue of neglect. In nursing home facilities, residents report a neglect rate of 95%. In a nursing home setting, the definition of neglect is when an employee performs his or her duties to a substandard level, which results in harm to the patient. The main forms of neglect include:

  • Medical Neglect: Failure to meet the health needs of the resident
  • Basic Needs Neglect: Failing to provide a reasonable amount of food and water to residents, and failure to ensure they live in a clean and safe setting
  • Personal Hygiene Neglect: A lack of assistance for elderly residents that need help with bathing or brushing their teeth, for example
  • Social/Emotional Neglect: When a patient is ignored or shouted at by staff members

Physical abuse obviously involves cases where caregivers strike residents and cause them physical distress or harm. Financial exploitation involves stealing or spending an older adult’s money, selling/stealing property or forging his or her signature. Sexual abuse of the elderly is a growing problem, especially since perpetrators seldom face conviction.

How Can We Stop It?

Elder abuse in the United States is on the increase, and it will continue to escalate unless we implement certain measures. Caregivers and family members should become more vigilant and learn to spot the signs of elder abuse.

For example, take note of any bruises you find. According to a 2006 study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), accidental bruising follows a predictable pattern, and large accidental bruises often appear on the extremities. In other words, look for unusual bruising. A follow-up study by the NIJ in 2009 showed that 60% of bruising in elderly patients is inflicted, 14% is accidental, and 26% comes from unknown causes.

Possible symptoms of nursing home neglect include:

  • Sudden weight loss
  • Bedsores and frequent infections along with malnutrition
  • Abnormal changes in the person’s behavior
  • Severe alterations in the person’s appearance or level of hygiene
  • When the resident is unwilling to interact with caregivers, this is likely a sign of fear

The other issue is the drastic fall in staff-to-patient ratios in nursing homes across the United States. A 2016 study published in Health Services Insights entitled The Need for Higher Minimum Staffing Standards in U.S. Nursing Homes found that around 54% of nursing homes lacked adequate staff, and over a quarter have “dangerously” low staffing levels.

Another problem is the lack of money spent on investigating cases of elderly abuse. Units around the country dedicated to finding and preventing abuse are suffering from budget and staff cuts. One example is Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Job & Family Services, which saw steady cuts to the number of cases it was able to investigate since 2009. Without specific reports of abuse, there aren’t enough investigators to conduct routine checks on elderly patients.

Final Words

Elder abuse is not a problem that one agency can solve. Only a concerted effort by government officials, relatives of the elderly, and caregivers in nursing homes can drive down the number of abuse cases. As long as the perpetrators get away with their crimes, they will continue to commit them. We would also like to see much stiffer penalties meted out to guilty parties.

While evidence suggests that thousands of older adults suffer abuse every day in the United States, there are no accurate statistics to back up this claim. If you believe your loved one is the victim of abuse, get in touch with a law firm that specializes in elder abuse cases.