Warning Signs of Psychological Abuse in Seniors and How to Stop It

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Signs of Mental and Emotional Elder Abuse

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Some of our society’s most vulnerable citizens are frequently subjugated to psychological abuse. It can be hard to detect, yet senior emotional abuse is both pervasive and underreported. Seniors who experience psychological abuse are at higher risk of morbidity, mortality, and other health issues. Psychological senior abuse is the perpetration of explicit and malicious nonphysical acts against an elder. Perpetrators inflict anguish through fear, manipulation, humiliation, and threats. Psychological abuse is believed to be the most common type of senior abuse, with an incidence rate reported at 54.1%. Many seniors depend on others for help with daily tasks, leaving them feeling hopeless when taken advantage of. If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, read on to learn what you can do.

Risk Factors for Senior Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse can happen to anyone, and older adults are particularly at risk. Perpetrators often take advantage of seniors’ vulnerability and inflict verbal and nonverbal terror. While elder abuse occurs all around the world, there are certain individual, relationship, and community factors that can increase an elder’s risk.

Individual Risk Factors

  • Alcohol and/or substance abuse (by the senior or the abuser)
  • The victim’s gender
  • Lack of financial support
  • Inadequate care
  • Poor physical and/or mental health (in the senior or abuser)
  • Lack of proper medication management
  • Dependence on others for help with daily tasks

Relationship Risk Factors

  • History of poor family relationships
  • Shared living situations
  • Family stress (stemming from separation, death, divorce, trauma, etc.)
  • Lack of planning for care
  • Poor family financial standing (and history of financial abuse)
  • Lack of family paid time off
  • Domestic violence in the family (including child abuse)

Community Risk Factors

  • Community violence
  • Lack of local resources (high poverty and unemployment rates)
  • Ageist stereotypes
  • Younger citizens moving away
  • Increased social isolation
  • Lower standards of healthcare (particularly in nursing homes)
  • Cultural norms that encourage silence and enduring suffering

How to Identify Senior Psychological Abuse

Discovering signs of elder abuse often means looking for outward scars or unexplained financial transactions. But with psychological abuse, it’s often much more difficult. The symptoms are less apparent, and some victims might feel responsible or not be aware of what is happening. It’s important to be able to identify signs of mental abuse. Psychological abuse can have a real impact on a senior’s wellbeing; in fact, emotional distress can even be the basis for a lawsuit*. Many abused seniors feel guilty and experience post traumatic stress disorder. The following behaviors are common symptoms of elder psychological abuse.

They include, but are not limited to:

  • Persistent fear or anxiety
  • Depression, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • Unexplained social withdrawal
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Social withdrawal
  • Refusal to talk or make eye contact with a caregiver
  • Unwillingness to answer questions

The above symptoms could be signs of emotional manipulation and abuse. While the presence of one symptom does not immediately mean abuse is happening, it gives reason to further explore a senior’s care and living conditions. Try to understand the situation and offer to get him or her help.

Examples of Senior Psychological Abuse

Senior psychological abuse can take many forms. Abusers often take advantage of elderly persons’ dependency and control, confuse, and humiliate them.

Psychological abuse examples include:

  • Insulting and/or embarrassing the victim
  • Isolating the victim from family and friends
  • Denying, or threatening to deny, basic needs (such as food and water)
  • Threatening the victim
  • Neglecting and/or ignoring the victim for extended periods
  • Placing the victim’s things (a walker, glasses, the telephone) out of reach
  • Making false accusations

Psychological elder abuse and neglect can take place anywhere. Victims have been abused at home, in medical facilities, and at senior care centers. Many cases, such as nursing home abuse, occur when a victim is dependent on a caretaker for their essential tasks. It is important to know how to spot elder psychological abuse and what to do if you suspect it is happening.

What to Do if You Suspect Elder Abuse Is Occurring

Elder abuse is prevalent. According to Department of Justice elder abuse statistics, at least 10% of Americans 65 and older experience some form of abuse. Types of elder abuse include caregiver neglect, financial exploitation, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. If you believe that a senior citizen is being abused, let them know you can help. There are resources available for elder abuse victims and their loved ones at the local, state, and national level. If you think the person is in immediate danger, call 911. Intervention might be required to prevent potential wrongful death or further emotional and physical pain.

Resources for Elder Abuse Victims

The following are government-funded and run institutions that combat elder abuse and assist victims of elder abuse:

Treatment Options

Mental and emotional abuse can have severe consequences. Seniors subjugated to psychological abuse are prone to anxiety, depression, isolation, somatization, and even suicide. Luckily, treatment for psychological abuse has been shown to help elderly victims. The first step of treatment is stopping the abuse and preventing future incidents. There are many options for treating symptoms of emotional abuse including psychotherapy, group therapy, support groups, medication, medical assistance, and physical therapy. Contact a licensed medical professional to learn which treatment options would be best.

Talk to a Lawyer

Resolving emotional elder abuse can be difficult, especially in cases involving a family member or caregiver. Elder abuse definitions and allegations can be misconstrued and denied. Working with an injury lawyer is often the best way to address potential senior abuse or neglect. He or she will help you determine what is considered elder abuse, the best route to take, how to prove emotional abuse in court, and how to earn compensation for your suffering. Contact a nursing home injury lawyer if abuse or neglect occurred at such a facility.

(DCD), Digital Communications Division. “How Do I Report Elder Abuse or Abuse of an Older Person or Senior?HHS.gov, 7 Dec. 2017, www.hhs.gov/answers/programs-for-families-and-children/how-do-i-report-elder-abuse/index.html

Abuse and Neglect of Older Adults: Understanding Gender Differences.HealthLink BC, 8 Mar. 2019, www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/older-adult-abuse-gender

Devious Damage: Elder Psychological Abuse, www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/archive/101308p24.shtml

Elder Abuse.National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nia.nih.gov/health/elder-abuse

Ilie, Adina Carmen, et al. “The Psychological Abuse of the Elderly – a Silent Factor of Cardiac Decompensation.Maedica, EDITORIAL POINT OF VIEW, June 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5649032/

Risk and Protective Factors|Elder Abuse|Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 May 2020, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/elderabuse/riskprotectivefactors.html

rural_and_tribal_statistics_and_research.Pdf.The United States Department of Justice, www.justice.gov/file/1098056


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