Elder abuse can occur anywhere, including at home and in care settings. People living with dementia are especially vulnerable because the disease may prevent them from reporting the abuse or recognizing it. They also may fall prey to strangers who take advantage of their cognitive impairment.
Elder abuse is the intentional or negligent act by any person that causes serious harm to an older adult. This harm may be physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and/or financial. Older adults with dementia are especially susceptible to abuse — as many as 62% of them experience psychological abuse and as many as one-fourth have been physically abused.
Additionally, one study found that 60% of elderly victims of sexual abuse have cognitive impairment. Nearly one-third (31%) of adults with dementia have experienced more than one form of abuse.
“People living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia are particularly vulnerable to elder abuse, including verbal, physical, psychological and financial,” said Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association. “As the disease progresses, these individuals are dependent on others for their care and that alone makes them vulnerable. The fact that these individuals may also struggle to communicate abuse or do anything about it only adds to the problem.”
Many people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia — especially those in the middle and late stages of the disease — may have limited exposure to others, making identifying and helping abused individuals more challenging. These challenges are further exacerbated by the fact that caregivers — both family and professionals — are most often the abusers of older people. In many cases, stress and frustration may unintentionally provoke violent feelings. Common signs of elder abuse include:
- Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
- Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, or unexpected depression may be an indicator of emotional abuse.
- Bruises around the breasts or genital area may be a sign of sexual abuse.
- Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
- Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss may indicate neglect.
- Belittling, threats, or other uses of power by spouses, family members or others may indicate verbal or emotional abuse.
- Strained or tense relationships and frequent arguments between the caregiver and person with disease may be a sign of abuse.
It should be noted that abuse can also originate from the person living with dementia. A person with dementia may exhibit more aggressive behaviors as the disease progresses and cognitive function and the ability to reason decline. The Alzheimer’s Association offers guidance for caregivers to address challenging disease-related behaviors, including anger and aggression. The Association also offers a 24-7 Helpline (1.800.272.3900) to help caregivers and families on various disease-related issues and challenges.
“Caregiving can be incredibly stressful,” Moreno said. “It’s really important to build a support network and reach out for help when you need it. One of the most common themes of abuse we’ve identified through our 24-7 Helpline are situations in which caregivers are overwhelmed to the point that a family member living with Alzheimer's or dementia is not getting the care they need.”
One growing area of abuse for seniors is financial abuse or fraud. Studies show that financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse, robbing America’s seniors of $2.9 billion each year, according to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Seniors living with dementia can be particularly vulnerable to financial abuse. As memory and other thinking skills decline, many of these individuals struggle to make good financial decisions. Signs that may indicate a person is having problems with money or potentially being taken advantage of include:
- Piles of unopened bills.
- Electricity, gas, or other utilities that get shut off because bills were not paid.
- Unusual or large purchases.
- Buying the same thing more than once, or buying things they don’t need (like dog food when the person doesn’t have pets).
- Giving money to every telemarketer who calls, or sending money in the mail to every company who asks.
- They might give money to the same person or company multiple times.
- Missing money or unexplained withdrawals from the person’s bank account.