Safety Article:

Adult abuse: How to spot it and prevent it

by Pam McGaffin

A friend living with her adult children acts unusually upset or unresponsive...

A man who used to be a conservative spender starts making large, unexplained withdrawals from his bank account...

An elderly neighbor who used to socialize and take pride in her appearance now looks unkempt and rarely leaves the house...

All are signs of possible abuse, according to the Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 Puget Sound-area organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

HAP and other organizations serving "vulnerable adults" will focus special attention on the problem this July, which the state has proclaimed Adult Abuse Prevention Month.

Adult Protective Services (APS), part of the state Department of Social and Health Services, investigated nearly 10,000 reports of suspected abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults in 2003.

Self-neglect, in which older adults fail to take care of themselves, was the most common problem with 656 substantiated cases, followed by financial exploitation and mental abuse. Other reports involved neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and abandonment.

Approximately 63 percent of the reported victims were 60 and older.

HAP urges people to be aware of the following warning signs and to report suspected abuse immediately:

  • Self-neglect: Look for malnutrition and poor hygiene, inadequate medical care, inappropriate or inadequate clothing, and unsanitary living conditions.
  • Exploitation: Be alert to changes in banking habits, including unexplained large withdrawals; the addition of others on a bankcard; unpaid bills despite adequate income; and abrupt changes to a will.
  • Mental and emotional abuse: An older adult who is being intimidated, coerced, isolated or otherwise mentally abused may act agitated or withdrawn and show some dementia-type behaviors, including sucking, rocking and biting.
  • Physical abuse: This includes slapping, choking, kicking, shoving or the inappropriate use of drugs and physical restraints. Signs include the obvious (bruises, welts, rope marks and other wounds) as well as the not so obvious (broken eyeglasses, sudden changes in behavior and a caregiver's refusal to let visitors be alone with the victim.)
  • Sexual abuse: Signs include bruises around the breasts and genitals, unexplained venereal diseases or infections, vaginal or anal bleeding, and torn or bloody undergarments.
  • Abandonment: This involves leaving vulnerable adults in a public place or their own home without the ability to get food, clothing, health care and other necessities.

The legal definition of "vulnerable adult" includes people aged 60 or older who lack the functional, physical or mental ability to care for themselves, as well as adults living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Those who suspect abuse, neglect, abandonment or exploitation should call DSHS toll free at 1-866-ENDHARM (1-866-363-4276). In the event of an emergency, call 911.

For more information on elder abuse as well as other issues related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), a toll-free help line, or visit the Web site at www.4elders.org. HAP is supported by its partner agencies, including Public Health Seattle & King County and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.