The concern and confusion about elder abuse

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It’s interesting to note that the past couple of years there have been ever more frequent newspaper stories and television news coverage about ‘elder abuse’.  It’s akin to how child abuse became a mainstream issue about a dozen years ago: some people complained about it and media recognized the issue and took up the cause.

The fact is, we should indeed be concerned about and revolted by any kind of elder abuse. Yet I suspect it’s actually more commonplace than any of us recognizes.

Aside from a very small sprinkling of truly warped people who delight in inflicting some kind of pain in the elderly, I think there is actually a substantial amount of both unintentional and intentional elder abuse.

Let’s look at the three core kinds.

1. Abusing elders financially

Virtually all older people spend years building a nest egg for themselves so they can feel they’re reasonably safe financially. They want to be independent if possible and not have to impose on their children, or worry about quality of life.

Yet it’s more commonplace than one expects to hear and know about older parents where their own children or other trusted family members scheme to take some or much of the money away. Whether through outright financial manipulation, or in the guise of a loan, or on the pretense of offering good financial investments, there are those who manage to strip away older family members’ savings.

Worse yet are those who find every possible way to skimp on what aging parents may need or want so that there’s more left in the bank to inherit.

2. Abusing elders emotionally

There is something very terrible about how some people inflict emotional stress and pain on aging parents and other supposedly loved ones. Just as little children need emotional support, aging people need to feel valued, engaged, accepted, and loved.

However, there are more than enough cases where the elderly are marginalized and isolated even in a house full of family members. It happens still too frequently in hospitals, assisted living facilities, in nursing homes, and in private homes. Often it’s not intentional. Regardless, though, it happens. And emotional elder abuse happens for the most part for two reasons.

The first reason is when some elderly who are having more cognitive difficulties without understanding or even knowing it elect to reject and push away the good intentions of professional and family caregivers. Those elderly people actually set the stage for emotional abuse by being so difficult and critical that they make people not want to engage with them.

The second reason is that a lot of us just plain run too hard, work too hard, press too hard to remember the singularly sensitive needs of the more elderly, who as a rule are alone a good part of the day. Because on some level most elderly people know they’re losing a lot of important things in their lives and the ability to control their environment, they need to feel wanted and appreciated. Their often-heightened personal need, though, is frequently met by an inadvertent letdown when we just don’t give aging parents the emotional reinforcement they’re looking for.

Fact is that there’s no really good reason for us not to find a little time frequently to offer those emotional embraces the elderly crave.

3. Abusing elders physically

This seems to be the kind of abuse riveting media attention most, and by and large our own attention.  We’ve all read, watched news footage, or heard stories about physical elder abuse. About how aging residents are some nursing home are found with bruises and broken bones no one is able to explain. Or about how some hired caregiver ties down, overmedicates, and ignores an aging client in his own home. Or about the child of a parent in her 90s who allows her mother to wear summer clothes in winter while providing only substandard meals and living conditions. Or, too frequently, about someone who slaps or punches an old person because he or she doesn’t know how to deal with that elder’s very demanding and frustrating behaviour.

Getting physical elder abuse front and centre of our attention is good and important. After all, physical abuse of elders is the most evident, most reported, and most talked about.

Too often, families of an elderly person who is in hospital or a nursing home rush off to complain when they see signs of bruising or abrasions on a parent or other older loved one. But what they usually fail to understand—and health care professionals usually don’t do a good job in pre-empting with good briefings—is that old people simply bruise more easily. Many break bones way more easily. They are more fragile in every respect.

That doesn’t at all excuse the real and heart-wrenching incidents of physical elder abuse. We need to be on guard for it and protect as best we can our elders from ever being abused physically. Health care professionals and health support workers need to be very vigilant and never assume a sign of physical abuse can be overlooked.

The bottom line

Elder abuse, whether financial, emotional, or physical, is just as unacceptable as child abuse is. Every one of us should be sensitive to how we interact with older family or patients. We need to work hard at respecting their needs and fears.

There’s something so utterly reprehensible, repulsive, and disgusting about inflicting any kind of pain on the elderly. If really accidental, that can be understandable. But if intentional, that must be met with swift and firm corrective action.

We need more sensitization about interacting with the elderly, especially those who have cognitive disorders that lead to words and deeds that in turn cause caregivers to ‘lose it’ and respond in the wrong way.

We need to find more ways to safeguard the financial wellbeing of the elderly because Power of Attorney rights can be too easily abused and Wills manipulated.

What we need, simply, is a responsible, realistic set of laws, rules, and regulations that guide how we interact with the elderly and how we call to account those who in any way inflict abuse on them.