What is Elder Abuse or Neglect?

Elder abuse refers to the intentional act of a caregiver or individual that leads to harm of a vulnerable adult. Over 3,000 cases of elder abuse are reported in Wisconsin each year. In 2016, Burnett County Health and Human Services received 91 reports concerning adults or elders at risk. Reports include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, treatment without consent, unreasonable confinement or restraint, financial exploitation or self neglect. Many victims are medically frail and often depend on others to meet their most basic needs. Risk factors of elder abuse include dementia, mental illness, substance abuse, and social isolation. Five frequently recognized types of elder abuse include:

  • Physical – Pain or injury as a result of the intentional use of physical force from acts such as hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping and burning.
  • Sexual – Forced or unwanted sexual interaction.
  • Emotional – Verbal or nonverbal behaviors that inflict anguish, fear or distress.  Examples include name calling or not letting an older adult see friends or family.
  • Neglect – The failure to meet an older adult’s basic needs from a caregiver or through self neglect.  Basic needs include food, water, shelter and medical care.
  • Financial – Illegally or improperly using money, benefits, belongings, property or assets for the benefit of someone other than the older adult.  Examples include taking money from an older adult’s account without permission, unauthorized credit card use and changing a will.


Who is at Risk of Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse affects people across all socioeconomic groups, cultures, and races.  It can occur in a person’s own home, nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and other institutional settings. Many victims are unwilling to report abuse because they may feel ashamed and embarrassed, particularly if a family member is the abuser. They can be afraid that the abuser will get in trouble or worry that they will be forced to live in a nursing home. Sometimes they feel guilty or believe they are somehow to blame.


Several factors can increase the risk that someone will hurt an older person.  These include using drugs or alcohol, high levels of stress, poor coping skills, lack of social support, emotional or financial dependence of the older adult, struggling with a mental illness and lack of training in caring for an older adult. It’s important to try to stop elder abuse before it starts.


What should I watch for?

There are numerous signs of abuse or neglect. These include bruises, bedsores, poor hygiene or unusual weight loss. Watch for any unusual activities at financial institutions or the inability to pay bills. Listen for verbal threats, belittling or intimidation. Be aware of any unexplained withdrawal from activities of interest. Other events include sexual contact from another person without consent, inability to care for oneself, physical restraints or intentional confinement in a room.


How Can We Prevent Elder Abuse?

  • Listen to older adults and their caregivers to understand their challenges and offer support.
  • Educate oneself on the signs of elder abuse.
  • Check in often on older adults who have few friends or family members.
  • Provide caregivers with respite and emotional support.
  • Encourage and assist people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions to seek help.
  • Report suspected abuse to Adult Protective Services or call 911 if someone is in immediate danger.


Who Do I Call if I Have a Concern?

One phone call can make a difference. If you suspect an elder abuse or neglect situation and wish to report a concern, contact Burnett County Health & Human Services at 715-349-7600 or Washburn County Health and Human Services at 715-468-4747. When you call you will be asked the details of what has occurred, when and where it took place and the name of the suspected abuser. If someone is in immediate danger call 911 for immediate help.


Hurting someone is never a sign of caring. Everyone has the responsibility to take action and protect the most vulnerable adults in our community.


Submitted by: Sandy Shields, MSW, Burnett County DHHS Adult Protective Services Social Worker

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