What is Elder Abuse? Keeping Loved Ones with Alzheimer's Safe

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2019

A common concern when finding caregivers for someone with Alzheimer's disease is safety. Approximately 1 in 10 elderly individuals in the United States living alone and independently are impacted by abuse.1

Putting a loved one in someone else's hands can be nerve-wracking, and elder abuse is a very real problem. Learning what elder abuse and neglect are, as well as the symptoms, are the first steps to help ensure your loved one is safe.

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is a term that describes "any knowing, intentional, or negligent act" by a caregiver or another person that can harm or carry the risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. It includes physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse.1

Neglect is similar but involves caregivers or those responsible for the adult to fail to provide basic needs like food, shelter, medical attention, safety, or protection.1

Abuse in later stages of Alzheimer's

Individuals with Alzheimer's may be especially susceptible to abuse or neglect because of cognitive and memory impairment. In the later stages, the impaired ability to move or talk.

They may also be more at risk of not being believed, especially at first, because of the cognitive problems and symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations that often accompany Alzheimer’s disease.

Warning signs of elder abuse

Recognizing the signs of abuse or neglect is the first step to stopping it and helping the person get the help and care they need. While the presence of one sign does not necessarily mean the individual is being abused, it's always good to be vigilant and aware of possible signs of trouble.

Signs of abuse or neglect can include:1,2

  • Bruises, broken bones, abrasions or burns, or pressure marks
  • Sudden changes in financial situation
  • Withdrawal from normal situations and things they love
  • Unusual behavior or unease/anxiety
  • Strained or tense interactions between the individual and their caregiver
  • Unattended medical needs, bedsores, poor hygiene, weight loss
  • Bruises around breasts, rectum, or genital area – may present as pain or discomfort sitting or moving
  • Notices about unpaid or overdue bills, uncharacteristic purchases

What to do if you suspect abuse

If any abuse or neglect is suspected, the person should be believed and it should be reported to the proper authorities. If the person is in immediate danger - call 911. Otherwise, find the Adult Protective Services (APS) number for your area, which you can find here.3

Family members or caregivers can also call local law enforcement with any concerns. If APS finds that the situation may be an unsafe one, a caseworker is assigned to do an investigation. If immediate intervention is needed, the individual will receive the appropriate services.

Support during a difficult situation

If a loved one is the victim of elder abuse, believe them. Provide them with the services they need and provide support. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty, which are common responses.

Reassure them that it was not their fault and that they are safe and supported. With their permission, talk with their doctor about available local resources in your area that can help them heal.

Keeping a loved one with Alzheimer's safe

Finding a good caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer's can be stressful enough, and ensuring that they are safe from abuse and neglect is a valid concern. Touring facilities, thoroughly interviewing and vetting potential caregivers.

Staying vigilant about subtle physical, emotional, and social cues and behaviors can all help keep an individual with Alzheimer's safe. Talk with the person's doctor about other ways to remain vigilant and prepared should the situation arise.

Together, family and caregivers will be able to help minimize the risk of elder abuse or neglect.

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