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Combatting Increased Risks of Elder Abuse during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Erica Jablonski

August19, 2021

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines elder abuse as, “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” It commonly includes mistreatment such as physical, psychological/emotional, sexual, and financial abuse, as well as neglect. According to the WHO, elder abuse rates have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although, it has previously been estimated that cases of elder abuse are seriously underreported, there is recent evidence from the United States for instance indicating that community rates of elder abuse may have grown by up to 84%.

Two specific risks to older adults that have been exacerbated by the epidemic are neglect and financial exploitation. For example, the high numbers of COVID-19 deaths in U.S. long-term care facilities have been attributed in part to staffing, sanitation, and supply challenges associated with the pandemic. Adding insult to injury, financial scams directed at older adults have proliferated, sometimes exploiting pandemic fears through false vaccine-related claims. These risks appear to be heightened by the greater social isolation brought on by physical/social distancing requirements.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), “social isolation is one of the greatest risk factors for elder abuse.” This does not mean that older adults who live in the community instead of long-term care facilities are not at risk because shared living situations and greater dependency can also predict abuse. Remaining socially connected, in writing, by phone, or online is recommended for both caregivers and the older adults they care for when in-person communication is less feasible. These remote options include texting, support hotlines, and online support groups.

Access to sources of emotional and tangible support are essential at this time of uncertainty and heightened anxiety. Both the WHO and NCEA suggest that prevention of elder abuse relies on individual (victims, prospective abusers, and bystanders) as well as systemic efforts. They advocate individuals educate themselves about the signs, risk factors, and appropriate contacts to initiate intervention if necessary. The NCEA website help page lists a number of scenarios that may help identify ways to proceed if you suspect or want to protect against the risk of elder abuse. At  a systemic level, the U.S has seen some recent progress, in  the passage of the COVID-19-related bill, The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which includes additional funding for both child abuse prevention and treatment, as well as for investigation of elder abuse cases.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, elder abuse was predicted to become an even larger global problem as the percentage of older adults aged 60 or older has been projected to more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to approximately 2 billion by 2050. We can only hope that the increased attention currently paid to the issue of elder abuse will persist after the pandemic ends.

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