Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Seniors with dementia sometimes make false accusations and claim that family or caregivers are mistreating them or stealing from them. In these cases, dementia is making them paranoid and delusional.
But unfortunately, there are times when seniors with dementia are being abused.
People with dementia are especially vulnerable to abuse because of their impaired memory, communication skills and judgment.
Unscrupulous people take advantage of these vulnerable seniors because they’re easy targets. They’re not likely to report the problem, they might not be believed or they might not be aware that abuse is happening.
To protect your older adult, we explain how to spot warning signs of elder abuse. We also recommend organizations you can contact for help if you suspect abuse.
WARNING SIGNS OF ELDER ABUSE
Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that causes harm or loss to an older adult.
Abuse is generally divided into six categories. In each category, we share red flags that are strong signs of elder abuse. Even if your older adult doesn’t recognize what’s happening or can’t speak for themselves, you’ll know when something suspicious is going on and can advocate on their behalf.
Physical abuse: When someone purposely causes injury, pain, or impairment to an older adult. It also includes isolation and the inappropriate use of restraints. Warning signs include unexplained injuries like bruises, welts, burns, new scars, broken bones, sprains or dislocations; reports of drug overdose or not taking medication regularly (like when a prescription has more left at the end of the month than it should); broken eyeglasses or signs of being restrained like rope marks on wrists; and/or the caregiver refuses to let you to see the older adult without them present.
Emotional abuse: Includes verbal abuse, threats, harassment, humiliation and intimidation. Warning signs include any kind of threatening, belittling, or controlling behavior that you observe; the older adult shows increased signs of agitation like rocking, sucking, or mumbling to themselves; unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, or unexpected depression; and/or the caregiver refuses to let you see the older adult without them present. Note: Emotional abuse can be especially tough to spot in seniors with dementia. Many of these signs of abuse are similar to typical dementia symptoms. If you spot these signs, listen to your gut, be watchful, and investigate until you’re satisfied that your older adult isn’t being harmed.
Financial abuse: When someone illegally or improperly uses an older adult’s money, property or other resources. This includes cashing their checks without permission, forging their signature, stealing their money or possessions, coercing or deceiving them into signing documents like contracts or a will. Warning signs include sudden changes in the older adult’s financial situation; irregular spending and withdrawals from the older adult’s accounts, withdrawals made despite penalties; addition of authorized users to the older adult’s bank accounts, credit or debit cards; items or cash missing from their home; suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles and policies; unpaid bills or lack of medical care when the older adult should have enough money to pay; financial activity the older adult couldn’t have done themselves, like an ATM withdrawal when they’re bedridden; utilities turned off; and/or a new “best friend” or “sweetheart.”
Sexual abuse: Any non-consensual sexual contact. This includes touching, fondling and any sexual activity that happens when the person is unable to understand, not willing or consenting, threatened or physically forced. Warning signs include bruises around breasts or genitals; unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding; and/or torn, stained or bloody underwear.
Neglect or self-neglect: When a caregiver fails to provide or purposely withholds necessities like food, clothing, shelter, medication, medical care, physical assistance or a safe environment, that is neglect. But when a person doesn’t provide for their own essential needs, that’s self-neglect. Due to their cognitive impairment, seniors with dementia might not be able to provide for their own day-to-day needs. That puts them at risk for falls, wandering, infection and malnutrition. Warning signs include unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration; unattended medical needs or untreated physical conditions like bed sores; unsanitary living conditions such as dirt, bugs, soiled bedding and clothes; poor hygiene – being dirty or unbathed; unsuitable clothing for the weather; unsafe living conditions (hoarding, no heat or running water, fire hazards); and/or deserting the older adult in a public place.
Healthcare fraud and abuse: If a healthcare provider is falsifying patient information for financial gain or not providing proper care. Warning signs include problems in a care community like poorly trained or too few staff, resident crowding, not responding to call bells or alarms, or no improvement in care after major issues are brought to staff or administrator attention; over-medication or under-medication; inadequate care even though bills are paid in full; billing for services that were not provided or duplicate billings for the same medical service or device; billing for a covered service when the service actually provided was not covered; misrepresenting the service provided; and/or being charged for a more complex or expensive service than was actually provided.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT ELDER ABUSE
If you see signs of elder abuse, it’s important to intervene on your older adult’s behalf.
You may be able to fire and report a hired caregiver, move your older adult out of a neglectful care community, or prevent an abusive family member from seeing your older adult.
When you need help from authorities, there are many options for reporting elder abuse.
To make a report, you don’t need to prove that abuse is occurring. It’s up to the professionals to investigate the suspicions.
In an emergency situation, call 911 or the local police
Call your local Adult Protective Services (APS) agency: In most states, APS is the primary agency for abuse and neglect reports. Your report will be kept confidential, regardless of the outcome.
Visit the National Center on Elder Abuse to find contact info for state-level resources
Call the Alzheimer’s Association at 1-800-272-3900