In 2018, caregivers at an Illinois nursing home taunted a 91-year-old dementia patient with a hospital gown they knew frightened her. Delighted with their cruelty, the caregivers then recorded her abject panic and desperate flailing in a Snapchat video. They titled the video “Margaret hates gowns” and added two laughing emojis as a mean final touch.
Although this video is singularly difficult to watch, the general phenomenon of emotional and physical elder abuse is common. Elder abuse has increased in the United States every year since 2003, and estimates are that 5 to 10 percent of Americans over 60 have suffered abuse. Furthermore, elder abuse usually consists of not a single incident but rather fits within a disturbing pattern of behavior stretching over months and even years.
Victims Often Vulnerable
As the voluminous materials published by the National Center on Elder Abuse make clear, elder abuse occurs in private residences and in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and other adult-care institutions. In both domestic and institutional settings, older people can be isolated and heavily dependent on their caregivers. This, in turn, sets the stage for abuse.
Elder abuse victims tend on average to be weaker and less empowered. Abuse is twice as common for women as it is for men, and a disproportionate number of victims are members of minority groups, older than 75, or both. Especially vulnerable are people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other forms of cognitive impairment.
Often the victims are physically unable to report their abuse to neighbors, relatives, or the authorities. Some don’t fully realize what’s happening to them, and still others fear that if they complain, it will make their predicament worse.
While financial elder abuse might overlap with emotional and physical elder abuse, the latter in itself isn’t driven by the grubby, calculated animus that distinguishes financial elder abuse. Perpetrators of emotional and physical elder abuse act out of frustration, anger, or even cruelty rather than conniving self-interest.
Those who’ve attempted to make sense of elder abuse often point out how difficult caring for older people and especially dementia patients can be. The latter are prone to wild outbursts and uncontrolled rage, supposedly requiring caregivers to use force and restraints. Then, too, caregivers are often undertrained and unable to meet the challenge.
But beware. This kind of reasoning can place the blame for elder abuse onto the victims. Yes, older people and particularly those with cognitive problems can be difficult to attend and control. But elder abuse is sustained, intentionally harmful action rather than random difficulties encountered in caregiving.