What is Elder Abuse and What Can Be Done?

San Diego is home to almost 700,000 residents over the age of 60 and over 200,000 residents over the age of 75[1]. Many of these seniors are healthy, active, and happy, but unfortunately elder abuse is a growing reality as our population continues to age and to depend on the help of caregivers. Many of us assume elder abuse only occurs in nursing homes and that it requires physical abuse. No so! In fact, elder abuse often happens much closer to home, and it comes in many different forms. In this article, we will take a closer look at what elder abuse is, who commits elder abuse, and what a legal case for elder abuse looks like.

If you are worried that a loved one may be undergoing abuse or if you are not sure if you have any legal avenues to protect your loved one, keep reading.

Elder Abuse Is Happening

Abuse can happen to any person at any age, but older adults are uniquely vulnerable. Many require the help and care of others and are not physically able to protect themselves. With growing rates of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, certain seniors may not be able to articulate or even recognize their abuse. Instead, it is up to family members to pay attention to their loved ones and to start asking question if they notice signs of abuse.

Elder abuse rates are higher than most of us realize. According to the National Council on Aging, roughly one in ten Americans older than 60 have faced some form of abuse. What is even worse is that only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities![2]

What Does Elder Abuse Look Like?

Elder abuse does not necessarily have to mean bruises or broken bones, though physical abuse certainly qualifies as elder abuse and is something to look out for. In truth, elder abuse has many different faces and can often be difficult to discover.

Elder abuse includes things like:

  • Emotional Abuse – Threatening, swearing, or verbally manipulating a person
  • Neglect – Failing to provide care, leaving someone unclean or in an unhygienic state
  • Sexual Abuse – Touching or performing unwanted/non-consensual sexual acts; includes verbal sexual harassment
  • Confinement – Keeping a person in a place against their will, not allowing them to leave
  • Financial Exploitation – Stealing money or manipulating the person into giving money


Who Commits Elder Abuse?

You may have seen stories in the news of nursing homes charged with abusing their elderly patients or of a home health aide convincing a client to write them into a will. These stories tend to be outliers. In reality, almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect is perpetrated by a family member, most often a spouse or adult child[3].

This may seem shocking, but it makes sense. Family members very commonly serve as caregivers for their relatives, and while nursing home employees and professional home health aides must pass background checks and work under oversight, family members do not.

This does not mean that elder abuse never happens in in nursing homes or is never perpetrated by home health workers who have passed background checks. Abuse happens everywhere, but it can be extremely difficult to catch when the abuser is a family member.

How to Identify Signs of Elder Abuse

Why are so few cases of elder abuse ever reported? The truth is that they can be difficult to detect. If an elder is being abused by a spouse or child, who can she turn to for help? In other cases, family members may have no idea that verbal, sexual, or financial abuse is even happening. Many older Americans may not be able to alert family members and others do not want to “rock the boat” by accusing children or spouses.

It is up to family members to be especially vigilant of physical and non-physical signs of abuse and to operate as advocates for their loved ones who may not be able to speak up for themselves. Common signs of abuse include:

  • Injuries – Bruises, scrapes, broken bones, and signs of confinement may all indicate physical abuse by family members, a home health worker, staff members at a nursing home, or even other nursing home residents. (Note: If a nursing home allows residents to physically assault each other, they may be liable for creating a hazardous environment.)
  • Changes in Behavior – Acting afraid, withdrawal, depression, or a noticeable change in behavior toward a caregiver could be signs of verbal or sexual abuse.
  • Changes in Appearance – Weight loss, bed sores, or poor hygiene may be signs of neglect, deprivation, or abandonment.
  • Changes in Financial Situation – Large withdrawals, purchases on suspicious items the person does not need, missing valuables at home, or changes to a will or trust should all be thoroughly investigated.

What to Do If You Suspect Elder Abuse

The first thing you should always do if you suspect elder abuse is to alert the authorities. It is never a bad idea to call the police, especially in situations where you fear for the safety and well-being of your loved one. You can also call your local Adult Protective Services office. (The number for San Diego Adult Protective Services is: 800 510-2020).

Elder abuse is first and foremost a crime, and anyone committing elder abuse should be stopped and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Changing a Caregiver

As we learned, the majority of elder abuse happens at the hands of family members. In this case, it is paramount that you free your loved one from the care of the abusive family member. If your loved one is considered legally incapacitated, you will need to try and get yourself (or someone else) appointed as their guardian. This may require that you go to court and ask a judge to grant you guardianship.

Seeking Civil Damages

If your loved one suffered physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse, you may be able to seek civil damages to cover treatment costs and even win punitive damages to punish the abuser or any company that allowed the abuse to happen.

In most cases, family members, individual home health workers, or nursing home staff do not have enough assets to make a lawsuit advisable. However, you can go after the nursing home or the home care company that employed the abuser. If these companies failed to properly vet and monitor their staff, then they are culpable for the abuse as well.

First, seek representation from a San Diego lawyer who specializes in elder abuse law. To help build your case, keep records of everything. Here are some tips:

  • Keep all records related to your loved one’s stay in a nursing home or the work contract for a home health worker
  • Take notes on when you first suspected the abuse and what made you suspect abuse
  • If you notice signs of physical abuse, take pictures
  • Note anything your loved one said that raised your suspicions
  • Record any testimony from your loved one
  • Make a note of all conversations you had with the company raising suspicions about abuse and their response

If you filed a police report, your attorney may be able to use any evidence the police discovered to support your case. If the abuser was successfully prosecuted for the abuse, that will certainly help bolster your civil suit.

If you have a strong case for elder abuse, your attorney may be able to pursue a settlement with the nursing home or healthcare company. Juries also tend to be sympathetic to elderly victims so most nursing homes will want to avoid lengthy litigation

This process all starts with you closely monitoring your loved ones and raising your suspicions if you notice signs of elder abuse.

If you think you have an elder abuse case in San Diego or in Southern California, contact Amy Saba at Saba Law.


[1] https://www.aging.ca.gov/docs/DataAndStatistics/Statistics/IFF/2018%20Population%20Demographic%20Projections.pdf

[2] https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/

[3] https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/

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