Elder Abuse: Looking for Signs, and How to Help

Each year, an estimated 2.1 million older Americans are victims of abuse.

ByABC News
March 2, 2011, 12:46 PM

March 2, 2011 — -- Each year, more than two million older Americans are victims of abuse, according to the American Psychological Association. But research suggests elder abuse is significantly under-reported and under-identified.

As few as 1 in 6 cases of elder abuse come to the attention of authorities, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.

How can you tell if you or your loved one is being abused? What can you do to help? What resources are out there?

The National Center on Elder Abuse defines elder abuse as intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver or "trusted" individual that causes, or can cause, harm to a vulnerable elder.

"Unfortunately from what statistical information we do have, most victimized people are abused by people they know and trust," said Sharon Merriman-Nai, the co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse.

Elder abuse can come in many forms: physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, financial abuse and exploitation, sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment and self-neglect. A change in general behavior is a universal warning sign, she said. If you notice your loved one is withdrawn or gets upset or agitated easily, it "might mean it's time to ask questions."

An important thing to remember: If your loved one says something happened, take them seriously.

"Sometimes, when older people suffer from dementia or some sort of cognitive problem, they may not be believed," Merriman-Nai said.

Dr. Susan Ginsberg, who publishes a monthly newsletter called "Work & Family Life: Balancing Job and Personal Responsibilities," outlined the warning signs of different forms of elder abuse.

If you notice an untreated injury, or an injury that seems inconsistent with the explanation of its cause, it may be a sign of physical abuse, she said.

"Try to determine if the older person is afraid of anyone -- either at home or in a facility, or whether they have been hit or slapped," she added.