World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) is June 15. Launched by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization, WEAAD provides an opportunity for congregations and communities to raise awareness of the cultural, social, economic, and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.
Elder abuse affects older people across all socioeconomic groups, cultures, and races. It can occur anywhere people are disconnected from social supports, including:
- An individual’s home
- Nursing homes
- Assisted living facilities
- Senior centers
- Other institutional settings for older adults
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans over 60 are abused, neglected, or exploited. Research estimates that 1 out of 10 people age 60 and older are victims of abuse. This cruelty — referred to as elder abuse — comes in the forms of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse, abandonment, and neglect.
While any older person is potentially at risk for elder abuse, some — women and people age 80 and older — are more susceptible than others. Factors such as dementia or poor physical health can increase older people’s isolation, which in turn puts them at greater risk of experiencing abuse or neglect.
Eradicating a problem of this magnitude requires advocacy, collaboration, and effort. Significantly reducing elder abuse requires addressing social determinants including ageism, low income and socioeconomic status, financial dependence, poor health, functional impairment, and social isolation.
People with cognitive impairment are at heightened risk for abuse, neglect, exploitation, and undue influence. By the age of 85, nearly half of all older adults experience some level of cognitive impairment. This may jeopardize their ability to make rational or value-laden personal decisions.
Often, elderly victims deny the occurrence of abuse or neglect out of fear, guilt, shame or embarrassment. In some cases, older adults don’t know how or to whom to report abuse. Elder financial abuse decimates incomes — often with little or no means for older adults to recoup lost finances. Even small losses can harm older adults with limited resources. Victims of financial exploitation are rarely eligible for any compensation despite the fact that this form of abuse is among the most common.
Church leaders need to work collaboratively with community professionals if they suspect elder abuse has occurred within the faith community. This includes:
- Learning the warning signs of elder abuse:
- Sudden changes in behavior or finances
- Physical injuries, dehydration, or malnourishment
- Extreme withdrawal, depression, or anxiety
- Absence of basic care or necessities
- Unsanitary living conditions
- Personal items missing
- Being kept isolated and away from others
- Providing safe, compassionate, and confidential listening
- Acknowledging the abuse and trauma that has taken place
- Assuring the victim that she/he is not to blame
- Creating a safe place for elderly victims to come forward for help and safety
- Educating congregations on the subjects of violence, fraud, and elder abuse
- Breaking the silence about elder abuse through a sermon on elder abuse
- Including fraud and scam alerts in church newsletters and websites
- Identifying community resources and community referrals
Reporting elder abuse is an ethical and moral response. Do not look away. In Tennessee and Kentucky, reporting elder abuse is a mandatory and legal responsibility. For more information:
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at email@example.com or call 615-400-0539.