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Advice & More October 2014

Dollar Sense

Be Alert to Signs of Elder Abuse: Here’s What You Can Do to Help

By Teresa Ambord

If there is immediate danger, call 911 or the local police. If you suspect abuse (or if you yourself are being abused) but there does not appear to be immediate danger, tell someone. A doctor, a pastor, a social worker, even the person who answers the phone at your local senior center… but tell someone.

As fall settles in you may already be making plans for Thanksgiving dinner and family Christmas events. Nobody wants to mix celebrations with thoughts of possible elder abuse. But if you only see your senior relatives during the holidays, it’s a good time to just be a bit more aware. Without tipping your hand, take note of how your older friends and relatives are really doing. Is Aunt Edna behaving as usual? Does Uncle Charles have bruises he can’t explain or seems nervous about? Do they seem uncharacteristically timid?

Elder abuse is more common than you might think. According to Adult Protective Services, the incidence is rising, particularly among women and the very elderly. Contrary to common belief, abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries. Sometimes all it takes to spot a problem and put a halt to it is a caring eye.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) says at least one in 9 Americans over age 60 have been abused in some way in the past year. Here are some more DOJ statistics:

  • In 90% of cases, the seniors know the abuser.
  • Often the abuser is a family member, and two out of three times, the abuser is the spouse or adult child of the victim.
  • Of the 1 in 9 cases of elder abuse, at least five will go unreported. This is often because the victim is afraid to tell, and observers are reluctant to step in.

Topping the list of problems is financial abuse. At least $2.6 billion is lost every year by victims of elder financial abuse. The next most common form of abuse is neglect, followed by emotional or psychological abuse.

Donna Dougherty is an attorney for the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA), in charge of legal services for the elderly. She told reporters at, if you see that an elderly relative, friend or acquaintance doesn’t seem right, he or she might need help. Abuse is not the only possibility, but it is something to consider.

“If their physical appearance has changed in any way, if they’ve lost a lot of weight, seem somewhat more confused or something suddenly has changed in their financial circumstances, those types of things are red flags.”

JASA’s director of elder abuse programs, Martha Pollock, notes that the most obvious abuse is physical. “If there are bruises, if there are marks, if the person is limping, if they have broken glasses or broken dentures, it warrants more questioning as to what has gone on.”

Generally, older people like it when you take an interest by asking discreet questions. The key word there is discreet. Don’t mention the word “abuse,” but just work some casual questions into the conversation. The National Center on Elder Abuse says ask them about these things:

  • Does the elder require help with housekeeping, shopping, personal care, money management, transportation, medications or medical checkups?
  • Does he or she live alone or with others?
  • If the elder lives with someone, is he or she dependent on the person? Is the person an appropriate caregiver?
  • Are there visible signs of neglect? This could include self-neglect.
  • Try to get some private time with the elder to discuss the future. He or she may want to express anxiety but only in privacy. It may be necessary to schedule a doctor visit with the senior. If you have concerns, be sure to follow up on them, even if it requires a return visit.


What can you do if you suspect abuse?

If there is immediate danger, call 911 or the local police. If you suspect abuse (or if you yourself are being abused) but there does not appear to be immediate danger, tell someone. A doctor, a pastor, a social worker, even the person who answers the phone at your local senior center… but tell someone.

You can also find help here: or call 1-800-677-1116


Other People You Might Tell

If you have reasonable grounds for suspicion, there are many people who know how to help by passing the information to the right sources. Mail carriers and bank employees are trained to notice signs of unusual activity.

A mail carrier may see mail stacking up uncollected, or a sudden flood of “final notices” in the mail which may indicate financial disaster. An alert bank teller might notice if a senior’s bank accounts is being drained, or if he or she comes to the teller window to make a withdrawal and seems agitated, especially if accompanied by a younger person who seems in control. So, as far-fetched as it may sound, if there is no one else you can think of to tell about your suspicions, go into your bank or post office or stop your mail carrier, and ask to speak to them privately for a moment. They are not in the business of protecting elders, but they know who to alert.


Gatekeepers Are Watching Out for You

Here’s a program, Gatekeeper, being used in the state of Oregon which, if we’re lucky, might spread across the country. The idea is to train certain people (bank tellers, mail carriers, utility workers, garbage collectors, etc.) who are in positions to notice when something is amiss.

Gatekeeper Program volunteers are taught to recognize the following signs that a senior may be in distress, and confidentially refer him or her to an organization that can help.

  • Communication: Confusion, anger, forgetfulness, hostility.
  • Financial: Trouble paying bills, mentions “missing” funds, bounced checks, large withdrawals.
  • Caregiver stress: Yelling, frustration, despair, lack of support.
  • Social isolation: Self-isolated or being isolated by someone else, unable to leave home, no visitors or help.
  • Emotional health: Depression, anxiety, significant personal loss, paranoid thinking.
  • Appearance: Unkempt, unshaven, soiled clothes, odor, inappropriately dressed for weather.
  • Physical limitations: Difficulty seeing, hard time moving around home, home not accessible, difficulty hearing.
  • Around the home: Mail and newspapers stacking up, yard not kept up, debris, pets neglected or too many pets, strong odors.


[Source: Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services]


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa