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Abuse: how to spot and act on it

Abuse: how to spot and act on it

Caring is an act of trust. Whether your elderly relatives are supported, in their home by paid carers, friends or other family members, they must feel safe. Nobody wants to believe that anyone is capable of abuse.  Most of us like to think the best of everyone, unfortunately, this is not always the case and occasionally this trust is breached.

What constitutes abuse?

Action is needed if you suspect any of the following:

  • physical abuse – hitting, pushing, inappropriate restraint, misuse of medication
  • emotional abuse – threats, insults, humiliation, lack of human contact
  • sexual abuse – any unwanted sexual contact
  • financial abuse – theft, coercion, fraud
  • neglect – for example, not ensuring your parent is warm, clean, hydrated and nourished
  • discrimination – poor treatment based on racism, sexism or exploiting a disability

How to spot abuse

It’s not always easy to spot the symptoms of abuse – especially if you don’t have regular contact with the person.  Even if you do see or talk to them regularly, they may not recognise what is happening, or be reluctant to talk about it from a fear that it would ‘make things worse’.  Some of the tell-tale signs to look out for in them are:

  • being aggressive or angry for no obvious reason
  • looking unkempt, dirty or thinner than usual
  • sudden changes in their normal character, such as appearing helpless, depressed, tearful or quiet and withdrawn
  • physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, wounds, fractures and other untreated injuries
  • the same injuries happening more than once
  • not wanting to be left on their own or alone with particular people.

Other things you may notice:

  • their home lacking heat, being unusually dirty or untidy
  • things missing
  • a change in their finances, not having as much money, as usual, to pay for shopping or regular outings, or getting into debt. Watch out for any official or financial documents that seem unusual and for documents relating to their finances that suddenly go missing.
 What to do if you suspect abuse

Abuse is a big word, you may try to convince yourself you need solid evidence before taking any action.  Certainly, if you are able to talk without fuss to your loved one and ask if there is anything that is making them feel uncomfortable, that may tell you all you need to know.

Unless their health and safety are at immediate risk, resist the temptation to rush in and take charge straight away.  They may need to feel they can regain some control so tell them you’re able to get help and ask them what they’d like you to do.

However, if they can’t or won’t talk to you then it’s really important not to ignore that little voice of unease within you.  This really is a case of it being better to be safe than sorry and no-one will think less of you for getting it wrong. You might want to start by talking about your concerns to a charity such as AgeUK which has lots of experience to guide and support you.

 How to report abuse

Since society began to recognise that abuse of older people does go on, the Care Act of 2014 requires local councils to give clear, free advice on how to raise concerns. You’ll find information on the local council website or by calling direct and asking to speak to the person responsible for Adult Safeguarding.

Even if the abuse is not being carried out by paid carers licenced by your local council, your council will have social workers who deal specifically with abuse cases.

Other options include contacting the GP, or other medical professional who has regular contact with your parent or friend.

Bear in mind that some types of abuse – including assault and theft – are criminal offences that can also be reported to the police. You may not relish the prospect of a criminal investigation but it’s unlikely your relative is the only one being abused and taking action will also help others.

Have you ever suspected abuse? What did you do? And how good was the support you got? Please share your experience with others in Age Space Forum.