What every faith leader needs to know about elder abuse

Published 5:51 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Every month, one in 10 older adults worldwide experience some form of abuse. But with only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse reported, the true figures are likely to be much greater.

As elders become more physically frail, they’re less able to stand up to bullying and or fight back if they are attacked. It’s also a good possibility that they are not able to see and hear as well or they may not be able to think as clearly as they used to. This leaves openings for people to take advantage of them.

Elder abuse is a term referring to any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to an older adult. Many states have laws that cover both seniors and adults with disabilities. Laws vary from state to state, but the National Center on Elder Abuse has developed the following descriptions of the general forms of elder abuse:

  • Physical Abuse — Inflicting, or threatening to inflict, physical pain or injury on a vulnerable elder, or depriving them of a basic need.
  • Emotional Abuse — Inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
  • Sexual Abuse — Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Exploitation — Illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a vulnerable elder.
  • Neglect — Refusal or failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Abandonment — The desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.

The number of elder abuse cases is extremely hard to verify. Studies show that between 2 % and 10% of the elderly population have been abused. Older people, themselves, are often extremely reluctant to report abuse to the authorities because of fear, shame or dependence on the abuser.

The majority of abusers are family members, i.e., spouses/partners, children, grandchildren, and others. Some factors that may be red flags for abuse include the abuser having problems with alcohol and/or drugs, mental health issues, or being financially dependent on the older person. Other abusers include caregivers (paid and volunteer), “friends,” neighbors, fiduciaries, bankers, lawyers, and others.

Men and women of all ethnic backgrounds and social status can be victimized by elder abuse.

Social isolation and mental impairment are two factors that may make an older person more vulnerable to abuse. Women are victims in two-thirds of all elder abuse reports; and the older one is, the greater the chance of becoming a victim of abuse. Studies show that, in some situations, living with someone else may increase the chances for abuse to occur. A history of domestic violence may also make a senior more susceptible to abuse.

More than any other demographic group, the elderly are actively involved in or contacted regularly by religious congregations. Clergy and others from one’s faith community are among the few, and in many cases, the only people who visit an elderly person’s home or care facility.

As a faith leader, you may be in a unique position to observe signs of abuse and neglect by family, paid caregivers, or facility staff. Protecting the elderly from further loss or pain is a mitzvah, a good deed, a spiritual duty. In addition, reporting elder abuse is an ethical, as well as, a legal responsibility.

There is no magic way to tell whether or not abuse or neglect is happening. In many cases, your intuition will be telling you that something is amiss. While risk factors do not necessarily indicate abuse, some signs that there could be a problem are:

  • The person reports being afraid or hurt;
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse;
  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment;
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect;
  • Behavior such as belittling remarks, threats, and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.

There are many ways that faith congregations can assist with elder abuse prevention:

  • Create a safe place for abuse victims by making your place of worship a space where victims can come forward for help;
  • Display brochures and posters that include the telephone numbers of the Adult Protective Services and domestic violence services in your area;
  • Educate the congregation on the warning signs of abuse of elders;
  • Routinely include information in newsletters, on bulletin boards and in community meetings;
  • Ask someone from an aging services agency to come to speak to your congregation on elder abuse;
  • Speak out against elder abuse;
  • Partner with community agencies;
  • Offer meeting space for educational seminars on abuse prevention, or for domestic violence support groups;
  • Focus community service projects on elder abuse prevention;

Give a sermon on family violence, including elder and disabled adult abuse. The pulpit is a useful and appropriate platform from which to instruct others on treating elders and all people with dignity and respect. As a faith leader you can have a powerful impact on other people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Intervene. Do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the clues of elder abuse that are before you. If you suspect that someone in your congregation is a victim of abuse or neglect, speak to that person and speak up for that person.