July is adult abuse prevention month

July is adult abuse prevention month, and I thought it was important to bring up issues regarding the risks of abuse. When I first started providing social services, the term we used was “elder abuse.” But because a vulnerable adult may not always be an elder, the term has changed. And like all forms of abuse, it can happen to anyone.

Statistics show us many things about adult abuse, but we still do not know how many victims there are. Often, these victims are unable to report the abuse to anyone. Other times, even if they do tell someone, they may not be believed. So, what to do? As a professional, I am a mandated reporter, which means that if I have reason to suspect any abuse, I must call our state’s Adult Protection Services (APS). But as community members, your obligation to report is not a legal mandate.

I often receive inquiries regarding what to do with issues concerning a frail neighbor or family member. When people become more vulnerable and frail, the potential for abuse goes up. Sometimes, the abuse situation has evolved over a period of time and can be difficult to recognize. Other times, it may be a one-time occurrence. Research suggests that only one in five cases of abuse are reported. What makes these abuse situations hard to recognize is that the victim is an adult and, as an adult, has the right to make his own decisions. For example, I get calls from family members worried that their loved one is making financial decisions that are not sound. Two scenarios are possible here. One, the older family member is competent to make his or her own decisions, even if other family members do not like it. Or the older family member is progressively more frail and having more trouble making sound decisions. Even if this last scenario is true, it can be hard to prove and often becomes an emotional minefield for the family.

However, what is important in any community is not to necessarily tease out the nuances of potential abuse, but to have an awareness that it can happen. Often, the people who get help to victims of abuse are concerned friends, neighbors or family. The types of abuse that can happen are physical, sexual and emotional; or neglect and financial exploitation. Some warning signs are obvious, such as suspicious physical marks or large amounts of money drained from bank accounts. Some signs are less obvious, such as a person’s withdrawal from normal activities or changes in behavior or mood.

Usually, reported abuse starts with someone noticing that things have changed for a vulnerable adult. Trust your instincts. If something does not seem quite right, it probably isn’t.

To report adult abuse, call: Adult Protective Services, 1-866-EndHarm.

Betsy Zuber, geriatric specialist, has been working in the field of aging for 17 years. She provides social services to people 55+ and their families who live on Mercer Island. Please contact her at (206) 275-7752, e-mail or mail MIYFS 2040 84th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island, WA 98040. Mercer Island Youth & Family Services is a department of the City of Mercer Island.

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