It’s easy to miss elder abuse.
Austin, Texas. Mid-1980s. I’m sitting at lunch with a casual friend, who is living with and taking care of her mom. Mom is slack-jawed, with a vacant stare, but she knows what she wants: her portion, and more, of the french fries she’s sharing with her daughter.
As mom reaches for one more fry, my friend’s hand flashes out, spearing her mom’s hand with a fork. Mom’s reaction is much quieter than it should be; my friend shoots me an embarrassed look that says, “I’ve reached my limit.” I sit back, quiet, unnerved, not quite sure what I’ve just seen. Now I know.
Which brings me to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, marked this year on June 15. I didn’t know there was such a day, did you? Beyond the platitude of “If you see something, say something,” let me honor my long-forgotten friend, and especially her mom, by sharing these seven ways you can fight elder abuse.
- Learn what elder abuse is, even if you think you already know. Physical abuse and its obvious signs may draw attention. Sexual abuse is harder to detect, but sadly not rare. Emotional abuse may be the hardest to identify and combat. Is an elder you know becoming more withdrawn? Has a lifetime of criticism or disrespect suddenly escalated to new levels in the relationship of a long-time couple, or child and parent? Neglect and abandonment are also abuse. Find the warning signs of elder abuse at the HHS Administration on Aging.
- Help elders in your life be smart with their money. Billions of dollars are stolen from older Americans each year, and as AARP personal finance expert Lynnette Khalfani-Cox has written, financial abuse is “more likely to come at the hands of family members and caregivers” than strangers. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have just launched a new curriculum called “Money Smart for Older Adults,” which includes instructor and participant guides. The materials note the sad fact that seniors, because they are “trusting and polite,” may be especially vulnerable to swindlers.
- Offer respite for friends and family who are caring for elders. Caregivers in institutional settings may become overwhelmed or exhausted, and so may family caregivers. This may be especially true when the behavior of elders is unpredictable or aggressive because of dementia or other conditions. If someone in your family is shouldering the burden of caregiving, then find ways to help. Set a schedule with friends, siblings, neighbors, and professional helpers to take the pressure off. If you’re a primary caregiver, here are some tips for managing stress.
- Think not only outside the box, but outside the country. HelpAge USA, a group that sometimes partners with AARP on international initiatives like helping the victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, has launched a program to fight elder abuse in developing countries, where laws may not protect older people. Among their ideas are encouraging local volunteers to make home visits to vulnerable seniors, supporting local associations of older people and training communities to recognize the human rights of older people.
- If you’d rather stick close to home, volunteer for a group that helps fight elder abuse in the US. AARP’s Create the Good makes it easy to volunteer, giving you a chance to enter your location and interests and see opportunities in your community. There’s a great roundup of organizations you can get involved with on the website of the National Committee to Fight Elder Abuse, including groups you may not have thought of. How about becoming an ombudsman at a senior care facility, or helping seniors organize their bills? Since 1988 a group called TRIAD, with chapters all over the country, has fostered cooperation between seniors and law enforcement, offering many opportunities to volunteer.
- Make some noise. Elder abuse is under-reported and largely hidden from view. But we can change that. Learn about the places in your community that care for elders and find out what standards they need to meet. Are the results of inspections public? What about the posting of violations? During the next local election, ask candidates how much they know about elder abuse and what they plan to do about it. Vote for the candidate with a plan, or at least one with a clue.
- Pick up the phone, or a pen. At AARP, we’re constantly reminding everyone that the 50+ crowd is completely onboard with modern communication, from texting to tweeting. But we also see the statistics that people 65-plus are lagging behind. If you’ve gotten out of the habit of calling and writing the older people in your life, recommit to staying in touch. Learn where your older neighbors are, too, and get a sense of how they’re doing, and how you can help. Don’t do it tomorrow; do it now.
Also of Interest
- Elder Abuse: A Hidden Epidemic Is Slowly Coming Out of the Shadows
- Is ‘The Internship’ An Equal Opportunity Offender?
- Join AARP: Savings, resources and news for your well-being
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