What should I do if I think my elderly neighbor is being abused by caregivers?

Although it's a delicate situation, you can follow-up on your observations by speaking directly with your neighbor or contacting a state agency whose mission is to investigate and stop elder abuse.

Question: My neighbor is an 85-year-old woman whose grandson checks up her on weekly. I see my neighbor a couple times a week and I've noticed bruises and cuts on her face, and she recently had a "sprained" wrist that she had wrapped in an Ace bandage. I'm concerned that someone is hurting her. Can I (and should I) do anything?

Answer: Although you are in a delicate situation and you don't want to assume the worst, an elderly woman who lives alone may be quite vulnerable. There are some options you can consider to try to help.

Is It Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is defined by state law, but essentially it is physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse, or neglect, or abandonment of a person of a certain age (usually 65 and older). Many types of elder abuse are crimes (such as assault) or civil wrongs (such as fraud) under state law, regardless of the age of the victim, but states with elder abuse laws impose greater penalties on those whose victims fall within the protected age group. And, many states have programs and agencies designed to detect, investigate, and address elder abuse.

State "Adult Protective Services" Agencies

Many counties have adult protective services agencies. This is a good starting place for finding a professional who can evaluate your neighbor's situation to determine if she is truly the victim of abuse or not. To find your state's agency, search for "adult protective services in [your state's name]."

Federal resources

The Older Americans Act requires states to set up programs to intervene in and prevent elder abuse. You can find state specific information on the Older Americans Act website. As that site suggests, if you think your neighbor is in imminent dangerous of physical harm, call 911. But, to find a state official who can look into a questionable situation such as the one you describe, check out the state resources listed.

Other Issues

Even if your neighbor is not being harmed by her grandson or anyone else, she may have physical or cognitive impairment that is leading to her injuries. Many elders experience difficulty with balance. Sometimes that is a sign of a serious health issue (such as a blood pressure problem); sometimes that is a sign of an easily-remedied condition (poor vision or the need for a new lens prescription); sometimes it is a sign that the elder needs more physical stimulation (such as an exercise class). Only an evaluation by a person experienced in geriatric care can determine the source of the problem. A low-key, in-home visit by a nurse or other professional may be in order. If you feel comfortable broaching this idea with your neighbor, it might be another good starting point.

If You Suspect Abuse, See a Lawyer

If you really think that your neighbor is suffering abuse by anyone, you may want to talk to a lawyer experienced in elder law. They will be able walk you through the process of contacting the authorities to report the matter. Good luck to you—and to your neighbor.

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