Spousal Abuse in the Elderly – Warning Signs

We look up to older people for wisdom. They have lived and “been there, done that.” It used to be father knows best. But for some of us, we’d much rather ask grandpa for advice.

In some countries – particularly in third world countries – children prefer to keep their aging parents at home. The idea of putting them in seniors’ facilities goes against family tradition. In industrialized countries like England, United States and Canada, elderly people who have lost their autonomy and have to rely entirely on someone to help them with their basic routines are put in special care homes: first, their children have lives and families of their own and second, elderly spouses are unable to give each other the type of assistance – physical and psychological – in their advanced years.

It’s bad enough when there is spousal abuse; it’s worse when there’s spousal abuse among the elderly. Older people are helpless and weak, have lost the use of some of their senses and fall ill more frequently.

The loneliness of old age is probably the saddest reality that younger people are not aware of. Adult children who have elderly parents with either spouse providing the care must bear one thing in mind: their father or mother could be the victim of spousal abuse in the elderly. This is confirmed by a study undertaken by the University of Pittsburgh last year and published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.

Spousal Abuse in the Elderly: Why?

A February 2005 study cited by Karen Hoffman revealed that a team of researchers in the University of Pittsburgh found that if a spouse is the caregiver, this could be fertile grounds for abuse, especially when the care-giving spouse has his own physical or mental problems to grapple with. What happens is that because caregiving generates stress, the spouses break down. The mental wear and tear becomes too much to bear, according to Scott Beach of the Pittsburgh Medical Center, that the caregiving spouse ends up screaming, yelling, using a harsh tone of voice, insulting and calling the other person names. Some care recipients have admitted to receiving this kind of verbal abuse from their spouses. This verbal abuse, if not checked in time, could lead to physical abuse and may even prove fatal.

When you hear of spousal abuse in the elderly, what comes immediately to mind? The logical thinking is that the abuse takes place in a facility or in a hospital. Unless you’re a social worker or a geriatrics expert, you would never think that the abuse might be coming directly from the spouse.

People in their 60s like to believe that they have finally paid their dues. After raising children and providing for their needs, they deserve some R&R. But what if one spouse falls ill and is suddenly dependent on the other? There would be resentment naturally, a feeling of “being stuck” caring for the spouse and the loss of freedom. The desire to travel and engage in new activities is cut short –without any warning – so this sudden impediment can cause psychological scars. When there’s incessant psychological battering people logically overreact. They take out their anger on the person they are caring for.

Let’s not forget the other reasons why abuse of the elderly is prevalent: drug and alcohol abuse, mental problems and a family history of anti-social behavior.

Clues to Spousal Abuse in the Elderly

Adult children of elderly parents, health care professionals and attendants in homes for the aged must constantly watch out for signs of elderly abuse. Edith Wahl and Sheila Purdy, who called elderly abuse the “hidden crime” were commissioned by CLEO (Center for Legal Education in Ontario) to do a study of elderly abuse. They mentioned signs that deserved our vigilance.

  • Over-medication / over-sedation
  • Dehydration, lack of nourishment
  • Poor hygiene, untreated sores, rashes
  • Unexplained bruises, swelling
  • Depression and anxiety

Given their helplessness, it is up to those who interact with the abused person to report any evidence of wrongdoing. Seniors, in their fragile state, are either too intimidated by their abuser or feel ashamed about the fact that they might be labeled whiners and complainers. The result is they’d rather not talk about the abuse to anyone.

Wahl and Purdy also mentioned that other signs may clue us into abuse of the elderly: lost material possessions such as eyeglasses, money, dentures, jewelry or hearing aids.

Depriving the elderly of their basic needs is a deplorable act and must not be tolerated by society.

Counselors are trained to elicit cooperation from the elderly so that they are encouraged to talk openly of their personal experiences, no matter how trivial they may seem. They must be asked regularly if they feel they can absolutely trust their caregivers, if there is money or other personal effects missing, if they’ve been hit physically or been screamed at, and if they feel that they’ve been administered medication more than which was prescribed by their doctors.

Elderly Abuse: Resources

Fully acknowledging the widespread occurrence of spousal abuse in the elderly, Canada and the US have set up similar community resources that abused individuals and their loved ones can turn to for help.

While resources may vary from province to province and state to state, people requiring assistance should use these community resources:

  • Personal physicians and public nurses
  • Senior community centers
  • Police
  • Hospital geriatric teams
  • Community information centers
  • Lawyers and other professionals
  • The media
  • Long term care ombudsman programs
  • Activity moderators in seniors’ homes
  • Social workers

Sympathy is a wonderful trait. Empathy, however, is a beautiful thing. Indeed, our lives are hectic and our own families expect much from us. It might be a nice gesture though if we could set aside some time for our aging parents – take them to lunch, to Sunday service, bring them along for a leisurely stroll.

If conversation becomes too awkward, reaching out should do the trick. They say touching is one of the best ways to express love. And compassion.

12 thoughts on “Spousal Abuse in the Elderly – Warning Signs”

  1. Can someone that has done research on spousal abuse in the elderly reach out to me? I feel like I keep hitting a brick wall at every turn. I’ve talked to hospital social workers and nurses about the situation. I’ve told lawyers. I’ve told DSS. I’ve called the Sheriff. I’m literally getting nowhere. I have a situation that I’ve been trying desperately to help with and it seems like I’m in this tunnel with no light ahead. My whole family feels the same way, but all of us feel helpless. My phone number is 518-866-9663. I live in upstate NY. Any help is greatly appreciated! Thank you!

    1. This is an old post but it is my story too almost verbatim. I’m in California. Have you found help yet? If so can you maybe give me some ideas where to look. I’m holding on by a thread and afraid

  2. Try the local Agency on Aging (there’s one in every county). The personal physician for the cared-for person also should be contacted. That’s a start, anyway…

    1. James Jimenez Jr

      My father has been physically abusive to my mother his whole life. Shes 72 and hes 86 and still hitting her. This is a type of physical abuse in the elderly we dont talk about

  3. Same in Illinois. I have names and numbers of agencies that should be able to help but none can give any direct advice. Verbal abuse from my 91 year old moms husband. He is 89 years old and plays people. Very nice to neighbors and others he meets but when in the house with my mother yells and screams at her. I’ve heard him while on the phone with mom and now he is starting to do this in front of me while I am visiting her. Not sure what to do as he has all power of attorney. He also suffers from macular degeneration and is almost blind but insists on taking care of her. Because she has early stage dementia she cannot change her power of attorney. HELP!

  4. I am caretaker of my geriatric bedridden mother in her home. I do not live in her home. I will be receiving help for a few weeks of temporary care that is covered by her insurance. Her husband also my father has become increasingly verbally abusive and violent. We think he has dementia. He calls me a worthless piece of s*** and raises his cane and swings it at me. He also calls his wife my mother a worthless piece of s*** he raises his cane and slams it down on the couch or the bed where she lays or sets. She is bedridden. He screams at me to get the F out of his house. It is not his house they both own the house. She is afraid of him. I am afraid of him. I am strong and capable of defending myself should he attack me. I fear that I could hurt him. He does nothing inside the house to assist me to assist her. He does not help or care for her in any way. I’m at a loss I don’t know what to do. In Ohio. Any advice?

  5. Theresa. Some Days are peaceful and some days full of rage. Cursed at , wont talk, brings up something from the past, told to leave. All of this is unprovoked. Has to have things going his way. my kids dont know. Only a few friends, Lead a lonely life. Afraid I will die first and wont enjoy some peace. Prayer does help.

  6. Lora again from above comment December 7th 2019. Today, september 4th 2020 . Area agency on aging is for elderly people on Medicaid. This is what I was told when I called them so there’s no help, guidance for me. I got my mother into a nursing home in July and away from my abusive demented 90 yr old father. They are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare doesn’t cover the nursing home so they are self pay $305 a day. My POS father goes to the nursing home to complain about the bill 4 days a week and now he says he’s not going to pay it. His neighbor that I don’t know got my phone number somehow and called me up to tell me that he’s been trapping wildlife in the backyard of his residential neighborhood, then discharging a firearm to kill it, if a little fox or raccoon is lucky it’s put out of its misery quickly. If it’s not lucky he is using a piece of rebar to stab it and bludgeon it while it’s in this live trap. Throws it into the backyard and now hes attracting dozens of buzzards that come down and eat them. When he wasn’t home I drove up there and walked into the backyard and it was dozens of little skulls all over the ground. With the constant stress that I’ve been under for over a year now and the chest pain that I have on a daily basis from dealing with this I feel like I may die before he does. And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ll never have peace.

  7. Oct 5 2020 rest in peace mom. Another one of the 212,000 covid death statistics. No more neglect and abuse from your husband. Lora P

  8. I’m 42 and in the Philippines and I don’t know where to get help. My 85yo father is verbally and physically abusing my 80yo mother who has anemia and gets tired easily. He’s very demanding and always giving orders to my mom. He often used his cane to hit my mom and myself and sometimes to neighbors. He’s become dangerous, always threatening to kill us, always looking for a knife or a stone to throw at us. Each day is war at home. Upon reading all the comments here, it’s nice to know that I am not alone in this situation but it seems that my national government and local government unit don’t have solution or help for this specific abuse problem. Honestly, my mom and I want him dead because it’s the only way for us to have peace. I agree with Lora P, my mom feels like she may die before he does.

  9. This is all very sad to read. I have just went through a similar situation however I feel like I failed my mom (84yo) awfully. My step dad and her were always so happy, I’d never believe how he had been treating her in the last years of her life if I didn’t see it myself. I was just dealing with my own personal crisis and ignored it. In her last weeks I stayed with her in hospice at her home and witnessed it all first hand. He was awful to her, she was so depressed… with all of her health problems, knowing what she had been going through, and told me she was going through, me ignoring it… is killing me. She was sick for over 10 years after having a stroke. Her husband took care of her and everyone treated him like a saint… over the years he started mentally abusing her and threatening her. She got to where she couldn’t bathe or take care of herself about 5 years ago. Her health significantly decreased. Parkinson’s, diabetes, dementia etc…she’d just sit there and stare. Her death was sickening. She broke her back from chronic Osteomyelitis and had to be in a nursing home…She was starved into a coma in a nursing home because she couldn’t feed herself and they didn’t feed her. She was there for like 2 1/2 weeks…She was in quarantine for no reason…so I couldn’t go see her. When I did I saw how badly they were doing her. I called ambulance and got her home and on hospice. Where she suffered more abuse from her husband, but I was there with her. Even though she was unresponsive for 3/4 of the time, or barely coherent. I was too late. I couldn’t do anything about her husband because he threatened to put her back in nursing home and she only had days left. I couldn’t even say anything… no good would have came from it. So I would distract him and do what I could. RIP mom. I love you so much and I hope you forgive me. No more suffering for you, thank god. RIP Oct 2nd 2021. Such an amazing, strong, beautiful, inspiring woman.

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