For most elderly persons, there comes a time when their living accommodations have to be re-evaluated or re-configured. While it is preferable, of course, that they remain at their own home living independently (if at all possible), the reality is that this is simply not possible for many people. In the past, the most popular choice was to put them in nursing homes but other options, such as independent-living facilities (where they maintain some independence but also receive some monitoring and assistance, according to their needs), are now available; another possible option is the hiring of professionals who cater to their needs while they remain at home.
Whatever option is chosen, the one thing they all have in common is that caretakers assume responsibility for otherwise independent persons. Although this can often work out well, what happens sometimes is that abusive situations arise as a result of putting the elderly under the supervision or assistance of caretakers. In order to provide the best possible scenario for the elderly, people need to avoid succumbing to the following common misconceptions and myths:
1. Family members will treat an elderly person better than a hired professional or a nursing home. In many cases, this is simply not true. For one thing, the so-called “relative” may not have training in elderly care; additionally, this type of caretaker may not be supervised as closely and carefully as a non-relative hired to do the job. Once given the position, such a caretaker may also be more difficult to remove. After all, it’s difficult to fire a relative, especially if some family members choose to take sides if problem arise, despite not being well-informed on the level of care being provided.
2. Abuse must involve physical touching and include visible signs of abuse. Actually, some of the worst types of abuse do not involve any kind of touching. Mental, emotional, and financial abuse often leave few if any clues or signs. Also, these types of abuse sometimes cannot be verified unless the caretaker is put under constant audio-visual supervision, which is usually not the case even in the best nursing homes.
3. Emotional and mental abuse should be easy to spot or to confirm, if alleged. Even trained professionals sometimes miss or overlook the symptoms of this type of abuse. Make no mistake: people who abuse the elderly learn to hide their abuse, making sure they do not pull their stunts in the presence of people who might report or object to it. Because this type of abuse is so difficult to spot, any allegations or suspicions thereto should be taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly.
4. Emotional and mental abuse is not as damaging as physical abuse. Actually, these types of abuse leave long-lasting scars and may sometimes be more difficult to cure or fix than physical abuse, assuming that conscientious people stumble upon it and are then able to prove it.
5. All family members can be expected to have an elderly relative’s best interest in mind at all times. Some family members, not wanting to get more involved than absolutely necessary, may be too busy or too detached to care about any allegations of abuse. They may also simply not love the relative as much as may be expected; in some cases, they may even hate or have something against the relative. In fact, a family member is more likely than a hired person to do something or fail to do something for personal reasons (as opposed to committing random acts of insensitivity). They may also, for a number of difficult-to-explain reasons, actually resent the family member they have now been burdened with-though this is something they may have difficulty admitting to, even to themselves.
6. If an elderly relative is being abused, all family members will want to know about it and immediately have it reported to the authorities. This expectation hinges on the assumption that relatives care deeply for the welfare of the elderly person. This is, however, often not the case. Some family members may be apathetic, while others may care more for the welfare of the caretaker than his or her ward.
7. If you suspect or know an elderly person is being abused, it is easy to fix the problem. Nothing can be further from the truth, as those of us who have personally run into this problem have discovered. Many people don’t want to believe that some people can be so underhanded, uncaring, and cruel to the elderly-especially if they are related to them. Then there is the problem of finding cogent evidence. Unfortunately, you may have to use covert means, if you want to catch people red-handed.
8. All states and communities are eager to save and protect the elderly from abusive situations. Actually, investigating and ultimately prosecuting abusers can be a very expensive thing. Additionally, some people have a head-in-the-sand attitude when it comes to ugly crimes, like child abuse, rape, and elderly abuse. After all, these cases are extremely upsetting, prompting some people to avoid addressing them, if at all possible.
9. Abusive caretakers will willingly confess their abusiveness and will not fight any attempts to stop their abusive practices. Abusive people will not only usually deny the allegations (even when substantial evidence is waved in front of them), but sometimes even lie to themselves, perhaps not realizing the extent or level of their abusiveness. Even if they recognize the abuse, caretakers may strongly defend their actions, sometimes pointing out that what they do correctly supersedes whatever mistakes or shortcomings are being alluded to; they may also at least partly blame the elderly for the problems at hand.
10. Anyone is qualified to be an elderly person’s caretaker, unless the elderly patient has extensive medical problems. Even a relatively healthy elderly person should preferably be assisted by persons trained in elderly care. More important than training, though, is the manner in which caretakers treat their wards. If the caretaker is overbearing, rude, insensitive, overly-demanding, or abusive in some other way, then this person needs to be replaced, if at all possible.
11. People with mental health issues can still be trusted to be conscientious caretakers. While people with mental health issues can indeed sometimes be able to do their jobs conscientiously, such people may not be suited for elderly care, if their disabilities force them to be unnecessarily abrupt, inpatient, insensitive, apathetic, or unresponsive to the special needs of the elderly.
12. Keeping the elderly out of potentially dangerous nursing homes is always a good idea. This is simply not true if the elderly person, instead, ends up in an abusive home environment. Some nursing homes are indeed dangerous places, especially if they are poorly managed, staffed by uncaring or poorly-trained personnel, or grossly messy, but they are often a good choice for many elderly, especially if the alternative is an unsafe home environment.
13. Home care is always better than an institution or an assisted-care setting. While most people do indeed prefer to stay in their own home for as long as possible, many people are worse off by staying in their homes or apartments, if they end up in the hands of abusive caretakers; also, some homes are simply too dangerous or unmanageable for some elderly, thus making a nursing home a much better alternative.
14. Abusive situations occur more easily in nursing homes than at home. That is simply not necessarily the case. For one thing, nursing homes and independent care facilities are monitored by state agency inspectors. People who work for nursing homes undergo extensive background checks, drug screening, and other safeguards. When they do occur in private homes, abusive situations are usually more difficult to identify and challenge.
15. It is easy to remove an abusive person from their role and to prosecute them if they are suspected of being abusive. Especially if the caretaker is related to the elderly person, it is very difficult to remove or prosecute people suspected of abuse. For one thing, proving that abuse has taken place is a lot more difficult than suspecting it or alleging it, especially if the abuse is mental, emotional, or financial. As in the case of rape, child abuse, and spousal mistreatment, many victims are reluctant to testify against the abusers, especially if there is the slightest chance that the abuser may win the case (only to further terrorize the victim). Some abusers, furthermore, may not see their actions as abusive, or they may have hidden their activity to well that little evidence can be obtained with which to make a case against them.
“Lesson Ten: Adult Abuse.” 2001.