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ER Doctors on the Lookout for Elder Abuse

ER Doctors on the Lookout for Elder Abuse

Nursing home abuse gets the most publicity, but elderly people living at home or in the homes of family members or caregivers are equally vulnerable to abuse.

These individuals may find themselves in even greater danger than their nursing home contemporaries, because the very family members who are supposed to look out for their welfare are instead causing harm. Isolated seniors may rarely see anyone other than so-called “caregivers,” unless an emergency arises.

Emergency room doctors may uncover elder abuse when patients are brought to them. More such doctors now receive instructions in recognizing the more subtle signs of elder abuse. A 2015 survey finds that 79 percent of emergency room doctors have identified elder abuse in patients brought in for treatment.

How ER Doctors ID Potential Elder Abuse

The individual bringing or accompanying the elderly person to the ER claims injuries resulted from a fall. The ER doctor may suspect otherwise if he or she notices bruises, healing wounds, restraining device marks, cigarette burns, welts and the like.

The doctor can assess the patient’s hygienic state; whether they are malnourished or dehydrated; the condition of their clothing and whether they appear scared of the caregiver.

The American Medical Association recommends asking the elderly patient about abuse, once the caregiver is out of the room. If the caregiver refuses to leave the patient along with the doctor for questioning, that may indicate an abusive situation.

When the ER doctor suspects abuse, further testing is advisable. This may include a psychiatric evaluation to determine the elderly patient’s competency.

ER doctors perform an important service when it comes to elder abuse detection, but at best they are identifying and perhaps putting a stop to a situation, not preventing it in the first place. The people who can prevent elder abuse or nip it in the bud are those in frequent contact with elderly loved ones.

Low Report Rates

The sad fact is the overwhelming majority of elder abusers get away with it. Many elder abuse victims either do not want to report their situation, or are unable to do so.

Some come to see the abuse as “normal” – this is especially true in relationships that involved domestic violence prior to old age. An elderly person may put up with an abusive situation because the alternative is going to a nursing home.

According to Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study published in May, 2011, only an estimated 1 in 24 incidents of elder abuse are reported to authorities.

This comprehensive report examined elder abuse in four general categories:

  • Neglect by a responsible caretaker in meeting activities of daily living
  • Financial exploitation
  • Emotional or verbal abuse
  • Physical or sexual abuse

The individuals most likely to neglect an elderly person for whom they were responsible were, in order:

  • Adult child
  • Paid home health care aide
  • Spouse or partner

Major financial exploitation – such as the use of credit cards or taking substantial amounts of money from the victim’s account – surprisingly was reported more frequently than minor exploitation, such as an adult child not paying their share of rent or other bills. The following were those most likely to financially exploit an older person:

  • Adult child
  • Paid home health care aide
  • Friend
  • Other relative
  • Grandchild
  • Spouse or partner

Verbal or emotional abuse makes up the most common type of elder abuse. The parties most likely to engage in this practice are:

  • Spouse or partner
  • Adult child
  • Other relative

Paid home health care aides did not rank highly on the verbal/emotional abuse and physical abuse scale. Those most likely to physically abuse an elderly person were:

  • Spouse or partner
  • Adult children
  • Other relative

The most frequent incidences of physical abuse were “pushed or grabbed;” “slapping and hitting” and having an object thrown at the victim.

Physical and Financial Abuse

If an elderly person is suffering physical abuse, odds are some form of financial abuse is also taking place. If you suspect a relative or caregiver is abusing your loved one physically, it is also crucial to find out whether financial abuse is another factor.

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