Elder Abuse & Recognising Warning Signs

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Elder abuse is a deeply concerning issue that affects millions of individuals worldwide.

“Elder abuse is a grave violation of human rights, and it is our collective responsibility to protect and support older adults,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health.

“By raising awareness and advocating for the rights of older adults, we can work towards creating a society where every individual can age with dignity and respect.”

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse refers to the intentional harm or mistreatment of older adults, often perpetrated by individuals in positions of trust, such as family members, caregivers, or institutional staff.

It encompasses various forms of abuse as well as neglect. Elder abuse compromises the well-being and dignity of older individuals and infringes upon their fundamental human rights.

Prevalence in South Africa and Worldwide

Elder abuse is a pressing global concern, and South Africa is no exception. While precise statistics on elder abuse are challenging to obtain due to underreporting and the hidden nature of the issue, research suggests that many older adults experience abuse.

According to a study by HelpAge International, an estimated 15.7% of older South Africans have experienced some form of abuse.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 6 older adults experienced some form of abuse in the past year.

The Four Types of Elder Abuse and Warning Signs
  • Physical Abuse: Physical abuse involves using force or violence that results in bodily harm, pain, or impairment. Warning signs may include unexplained injuries, bruises, fractures, or evidence of restraints.
  • Emotional or Psychological Abuse: Emotional abuse is the infliction of anguish, fear, or distress through non-physical means. Warning signs may include withdrawal, unexplained changes in behaviour, anxiety, depression, or strained relationships with caregivers.
  • Financial Abuse: Financial abuse involves the unauthorised or improper use of an older person’s funds, property, or assets. Warning signs may include sudden changes in financial status, unexplained withdrawals or transfers, forged signatures, or the manipulation of finances without consent.
  • Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse encompasses any non-consensual sexual activity imposed on an older adult. Warning signs may include unexplained sexually transmitted infections, bruising or injuries in the genital area, or signs of psychological distress.
Treatment and Support Options

Addressing elder abuse requires a multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, social workers, law enforcement, and community organisations.

Available treatment and support options include the following.
  • Reporting: It is crucial to report suspected cases of elder abuse to the appropriate authorities, such as adult protective services or local law enforcement, to ensure the safety and well-being of the older adult.
  • Medical Care: Older adults who have experienced abuse may require medical attention to address physical injuries, manage psychological distress, and access support services.
  • Counselling and Support Services: Mental health professionals can provide counselling and support tailored to the specific needs of older adults who have experienced abuse. These services can assist in processing trauma, building resilience, and exploring coping strategies.
  • Legal Intervention: In cases of financial abuse or exploitation, legal measures can be pursued to protect the rights and assets of older adults. Legal professionals can guide seeking protective orders, pursuing restitution, or initiating legal actions against perpetrators.