Physical Abuse

Understanding Physical Abuse of the Elderly

elder abusePhysical abuse of the elderly involves the application of physical violence or force against an elder that results in physical impairment, physical pain, injury or bodily harm to the individual.

This may involve assault, battery, hitting, punching, shoving, or using restraints inappropriately to keep the individual from moving.

It can occur at any age and may happen regularly, or just once. Physical elder abuse can be hard to recognize, given the nature of assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Maltreatment of the Elderly

Elder maltreatment falls in the category of physical abuse, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1). It is defined as any type of abuse or neglect that is perpetrated against those individuals who are 60 years of age or more.

Physical abuse against the elderly may be perpetrated by an acquaintance, doctor, nurse, caregiver, family member or another individual in the life of an elderly person. According to the US National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), most perpetrators of elder physical abuse are unemployed, single and live with the elder in their own home.

While neglect is the most common form of abuse in the elderly at fifty-five percent, about 1.5 percent of abuse is of the physical type. This statistic may not seem daunting at first, but it still involves thousands of elderly people each year.

Types of Physical Abuse of the Elderly

There are several different types of physical abuse that can happen to an elderly person. This can include the following:

  • Cigarette burns
  • Scratching the elder
  • Biting the elder
  • Being slapped
  • Being shoved
  • Being struck
  • Being pushed
  • Using restraints inappropriately
  • Threatening the elder with weapons, such as knives, guns or blunt objects

Physical Abuse Indicators in the Elderly

Defining the maltreatment of the elderly and the need to improve upon these definitions are important issues to both the NCPEA and the CDC. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to tell the difference between elder abuse and elder self-neglect.

The difference between the two is that self-neglect is perpetrated on the individual by themselves and is a result of their own actions, while the maltreatment of seniors involves the intentional infliction of physical harm to the elder by someone else. Without having clear definitions of these two types of physical abuse, the elderly remains at risk of suffering from harm that is not reported.

Behavioral Indicators of Elder Physical Abuse

The typical behavioral indicators that an elderly person is being abused include the following:

  • Scalding burns
  • Cigarette burns
  • Burns from appliances
  • Rope, strap burns or abrasions
  • Internal injuries
  • Evidence that the elder is treating their injuries alone
  • Bruises that go around the elder’s arms
  • Bruises at different stages
  • Tooth loss
  • Traumatic hair loss from having hair pulled out
  • Broken bones
  • Sprains
  • Dislocated joints

Physical Indicators of Abuse Against the Elderly

The main physical signs that the elderly person is being abused include the following:

  • A past history of hospitalizations, often for injuries that are the same or similar to other injuries
  • A delay in receiving medical care for an injury the elder receives
  • Trips to various emergency rooms to avoid detection of abuse
  • Unreasonable explanations as to how the elder received an injury
  • Strained relationships between caregiver and elder
  • Elder withdrawal from usual activities or social activities the elder usually enjoys

Statistics on Elder Abuse

According to the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA), the maltreatment and abuse of the elderly is a significant problem among the elderly population in America.

  • Research out of ALFA indicates that those at greatest risk of physical abuse are older women aged 80 or more.
  • There is a 300 percent increase in the risk of dying within three years of an abuse incident (1).
  • Only about one out of every six elders actually make a report to another regarding the event. This means that statistics on elder abuse is somewhat skewed so that caregivers who abuse elders can continue to engage in physical abuse against elders.

Preventing Physical Abuse against the Elderly

Elder physical abuse can be prevented by staff at a nursing facility, staff at an assisted living facility or family members of the elder. Family members should visit the elder frequently and should take note of patterns of behavioral and social behavior that indicate the possibility of abuse.

The elder’s physical condition should be monitored so that the risk of physical abuse is diminished. It is okay to talk with the elder in order to find out their concerns. Family members should also pay attention to any medications the elder is taking.

The elder can also prevent abuse against themselves. They should stay in touch with family and friends and keep track of their finances as much as possible. If the individual feels that he or she is being abused, it is important to talk to someone about it or to report it to the authorities or Adult Protective Services.

Reporting Elder Abuse

The NCPEA, CDC, and ALFA believe that elder abuse is an “invisible” issue due to the failure of the elder or their family to report abuse as it arises.

Some elders suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia that make it difficult to self-report incidences of abuse. It is therefore important for family members and friends to report incidences of abuse if they believe it is happening.

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Dr. Christine Traxler

Christine Traxler, MD is a retired family practice physician, graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1986, and freelance writer, having worked with patients in rural Minnesota for two decades. She has written several books on medical topics and currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, where she works as a freelance writer on medical topics.

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