Emotional Abuse

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Up to 21% of the complaints filed regarding abuse in nursing homes in the US revolve around emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse). While physical abuse is the most common, hundreds of thousands of elderly residents in US nursing homes are subject to excruciating emotional abuse every single year.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

The Centers for Disease Control define emotional abuse of the elderly as, “verbal or nonverbal behavior that results in the infliction of anguish, mental pain, fear or distress. Examples of tactics that may exemplify emotional or psychological abuse include behaviors intended to humiliate (e.g. name calling or insults), threaten (e.g. expressing an intent to initiate nursing home placement), isolate (e.g. seclusion from family and friends), or control (e.g. prohibiting or limiting access to transportation, telephone, money or other resources) of an older adult.

How Common Is Emotional Abuse of the Elderly?

It is unclear exactly how many instances of emotional abuse of the elderly occur each year. Part of this is because the vast majority of cases go unreported. It is also due to a lack of understanding of what constitutes emotional abuse, as well as the number of elderly residents without family or friends who can identify such abuse and report it. Often, elderly residents feel powerless to take action on their own, in large part because their abusers have convinced them that they cannot do anything about it.

How Does Emotional Abuse of the Elderly Work?

Emotional abuse can be committed for any number of reasons. Often, it is in conjunction with another type of abuse. For instance, if a caregiver is stealing money from an elderly individual, they might engage in emotional abuse to prevent the elderly person from reporting the theft. In other instances, emotional abuse is its own “reward”, making the caregiver feel more powerful, or more in control of the elderly individual. It can also be done to make the elderly person more tractable to the desires of the abuser.

Signs of Emotional Abuse of the Elderly

For family members, friends, and other loved ones, it is crucial to know the signs to watch for that might indicate a nursing home resident is being abused emotionally or psychologically. These signs can include the following:

  • Withdrawn: If an elderly resident seems more withdrawn than usual, particularly when in the presence of a caregiver, it may indicate emotional abuse.
  • Loss of Interest: While the loss of interest in pastimes and activities can be a sign of depression not related to abuse, it can also be a sign that the individual is emotionally abused.
  • Emotional Upset: If the person is frequently emotionally upset, it can be a sign that they are being abused emotionally.
  • Agitation: If a previously calm resident becomes frequently or constantly agitated, it is a good sign that something is going on, possibly emotional abuse.
  • Unusual Behavior: If you notice a loved one beginning to exhibit unusual behaviors, particularly those that seem related to cognitive health conditions like Alzheimer’s without such a diagnosis, suspect emotional abuse. These behaviors can include constant rocking, rubbing, mumbling and more.
  • Statements of Abuse: If your loved one reports they are emotionally abused, take it seriously. Always investigate first, before dismissing it out of hand. While some reports can be due to a need for attention or mental health issues, these are more often actual statements about the situation.

The Next Step

If you know or suspect that a loved one is emotionally abused within a nursing home, the next step is to report it to your state’s government via their elder abuse hotline. The state will assign a caseworker who will investigate. If it is found that your loved one is emotionally abused, he or she will be removed from the facility and treatment will begin. It may also be a wise decision to approach an elder abuse attorney with significant experience in this area. Nursing homes and their staff must be held accountable for their actions, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and other forms of elder abuse.