Are we doing enough to prevent elder abuse?

A new study on home caregivers of elders finds a too-high prevalence of abusive behaviors, which suggests a need to look to family situations in preventing abuse of the elderly.

Orlin Wagner/AP
Joyce Clark, seated, receives mail from a caretaker at her apartment in Topeka, Kan. A new study suggests that some caretakers are unsure how to deal with the challenges of providing constant care.

A new study aims to stop abuse of the elderly before it happens by surveying caregivers for pre-abusive behaviors, warning signs that they are growing too tired in a demanding role.

As populations age, family members are offering care to elderly relatives more and more frequently, and the US Census Bureau estimates one in five Americans will be in the "older" demographic by 2030. A study for the British Geriatrics Society showed more than a third of caregivers surveyed engaged in potentially abusive behavior

"We all know that abuse does escalate," Pamela Teaster, professor of human development at Virginia Tech's Center for Gerontology, told Reuters. "If we can identify this behavior before it crosses over to criminal or more damaging behavior, we can prevent it from causing irreparable damage."

The study published in May suggests some caregivers abuse the elderly they care for as the demands exceed their ability to deal with problems, and advocates suggest more training could help both the caregivers and those they care for.

"Findings highlight the need for support and training for carers, so that they can care with confidence, have the skills to manage difficult caregiving situations and recognise when the pressures associated with caregiving may be harming the older person and know at which point they should seek help," researchers wrote in the study. "Community-based professionals such as public health nurses, GPs, social workers and home care staff need the skills to recognise behaviours that may act as early warnings."

Researchers said the data suggest that family caregivers may need more support in dealing with their stressful and demanding roles, but most such support has focused on care for elders outside the home. The National Center on Elder Abuse, for example, suggests tools such as background checks and abuse registries, but its focus is primarily in restricting those with backgrounds of abuse from working in nursing homes.

Of the 5 million older adults abused each year, according to the center's estimates, 90 percent are abused by family members, and half are the person's children. Abuse can be verbal, financial, physical, or sexual. The study suggests that many caregivers begin with verbal abuse such as shouting simply because they are unsure how to deal with the challenges of providing constant care.

"These types of behaviors can act as early warning signs to more serious harmful future psychological and physical abusive behaviors," lead researcher Attracta Lafferty of University College Dublin School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems, told Reuters.

The study should not be applied too generally, outside researchers said because it is based exclusively on surveys of Irish welfare recipients, and more than half the caregivers have little to no formal education.

"Most people aren't on welfare, so they carry a different set of issues than people who are," Dr. Teaster told Reuters. "Support that's available to people in other groups isn't necessarily available people on welfare."

It does, however, offer an important glimpse into possible risks in care for all of society's elderly as it demonstrates the initial abuse to which the elderly can be unintentionally subjected.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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