When elder abuse happens at home

Legislation and police powers exist in most jurisdictions to address elder abuse that occurs in institutional settings. In institutions such as retirement communities, nursing homes, hospitals, long-term care facilities, assisted-living facilities, etc., most abuse that occurs also violates existing laws that govern the relationship between the elder and the service provider, such as contract laws and/or employment laws. In the case of physical or sexual abuse, typically criminal statutes apply. Financial exploitation by third parties is similarly covered by laws against fraud. However, when an elderly person is subjected to abuse of any kind where the perpetrator is a family member, the abuse is entangled in familial and social issues, preventing identification and reporting of abuse. Corrective action is impeded by the fact of a familial relationship between the elder and the perpetrator.

For example, when an elder in a nursing home is verbally abused by a paid care-giver, say a nurse, corrective action can follow the reporting and investigation of the alleged abuse. When the abuser is a son or daughter-in-law, there is no contract or employment law that governs the relationship between the elder and the abuser. Even if there is a witness, a relative or friend, who are they going to report it to and under what statute is the local police going to investigate the allegation? When a  nurse in a nursing home manipulates an elder into giving them suspicious amounts of money, they are likely violating their employment contract and that forms the basis for corrective action. Even if the elder gave it “willingly”. A stock broker who systematically steers elderly clients into dubious investments is violating any number of statues.

When a son or daughter  “persuades” an elderly parent to give them money that effectively depletes or wipes out the parent’s financial resources, the claim that “she gave it of her own free will, I am her son, can’t a mother give money to her son?” effectively buys cover from most existing statutes. If the elderly parent is living with the abusive son or daughter, or they live with the parent, the issue gets more complicated – what is reasonable recompense for taking care of your father or mother?

When a son, daughter or other relative systematically exploits an elder’s financial resources, it becomes difficult to prove the exploitation because of the familial entanglements. Aside from relatives, even the elder may recognize the exploitation for what it is, but may be reluctant to voice their concern for fear of aliening a family member who may also happen be the primary care-giver on whom they depend. 

Other siblings and relatives who see the abuse may not act for a number of reasons – not least the question of who will take care of the aged parent if none of the other siblings are able, or are unwilling, to take care of the elderly parent.

Few jurisdictions have protections against breakdowns of the social contract within the family unit. Especially so where the abuse is not readily visible, such as psychological / emotional abuse, neglect, deprivation, financial exploitation, etc.  Where such statutes exist, issues of shame and social stigma prevent victims and relatives from identifying the abuse (pretending everything is normal) or reporting the perpetrator of abuse.  Thus preventing any corrective action.

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