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.