If you’re at all familiar with the abuse that can be suffered by older adults, you’re probably aware of some of the more common forms. For example, physical abuse has signs that can be seen easily (such as burns, scars, and bruises). Financial abuse is aptly demonstrated by funds disappearing from bank accounts, missing valuables, or intercepted checks.1 Even neglect has the unmistakable signs of a disheveled personal appearance, lack of hygiene, and untidy home.
But there’s one type of abuse that can go undetected for years—or even decades—because of its subtlety. It may have no outward evidence because it takes place invisibly within the victim’s mind and heart. Read on to learn more about this type of harm and how you can work towards emotional abuse prevention.
Symptoms of Emotional Abuse
What exactly is emotional abuse? It’s words and actions (or inactions) that cause the victim psychological pain or stress. The abuser can be a friend, family member, or hired caretaker. Examples include:
- Insulting the victim
- Threatening the victim (with violence, abandonment, etc.)
- Attempts to intimidate or belittle the victim
- Condescending or patronizing behavior
- Ignoring or isolating the victim
- Disregarding the victim’s need for privacy
- Anything else that purposefully demoralizes and/or dehumanizes the victim
Why Emotional Abuse Is Harmful
Emotional abuse is harmful because it can lead to depression, anxiety, lack of self-care, and failure to address health problems. It puts older adults’ peace of mind, well-being, and longevity at risk. Because the signs of emotional abuse can be subtle or vague, they are often attributed to other causes. Be on the lookout for the following:
- Depressed, apathetic demeanor
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of guilt or low self-esteem
- Appearing frightened in the abuser’s presence
- Reluctance to talk about what’s bothering them
How to Prevent Emotional Abuse
The best thing to do in regards to emotional abuse is to prevent it before it starts. But don’t be surprised if the caregiver has led their victim to believe that no one will look after them if they report the abuse. Or the caregiver may not even acknowledge that abuse is taking place. Instead, they may say things like, “No one will take care of you like I will,” or, “You think this is bad? Wait until you see what happens when I’m not around anymore.”
A key part of prevention is removing the older adult from the abusive environment. Sometimes, this involves working with the victim to remove the abuser, if the abuser resides with them. When you’re doing this, be sure to arrange for other ways to provide health and caretaker services for the victim.
Understandably, these things are easier said than done, especially if the victim is emotionally and/or economically dependent on their abuser. However, it is imperative in preventing the abuse. At times, the abuser may not realize their behavior is harmful or be willing to make a sincere effort to change. In these cases, it may be possible to resolve the issue with counseling of both the victim and abuser. However, it’s still advisable to remove the victim from their unhealthy situation until a satisfactory resolution is reached.
As soon as the older adult’s mental well-being is secured, you may want to report the situation to the authorities. Depending on which state you live in and the victim’s circumstances, the emotional abuse they’re experiencing may not be a crime. But even if it isn’t, that doesn’t mean you should let it go unanswered. Contact the National Center on Elder Abuse2 for more information about what to do next.
Emotional Abuse Prevention Starts with You
Unless people step in, this type of abuse will likely continue unabated. But it must not be minimized simply because it isn’t as overt as physical or financial abuse. Emotional abuse prevention can be initiated by anyone who becomes aware of it and cares enough to speak up. Remember: older adults are entitled to respect, dignity, and a life free from psychological harm. Simply put: there’s no excuse for abuse!
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.