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Practical Insights for Busy Caregivers

What to do if you suspect someone is being abused


November 21, 2016, by Pat Morden, Caregiver Exchange

Beth’s 86-year-old mother lives alone, with regular visits from a personal support worker. Recently when Beth was helping her on with a cardigan, she noticed a bruise on her upper arm. Her mother couldn’t explain how it had happened and didn’t seem comfortable talking about it.

Beth is concerned. And so she should be. It’s estimated that between four and ten per cent of elders in Canada experience some form of physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. 

What can you as a caregiver do? Be alert for signs of abuse, and take action.

“A trigger for me is anytime something has changed,” says Sheila Schuehlein of Elder Abuse Ontario. “If you notice that a person who used to be vocal is suddenly very withdrawn, something’s happened. If a care provider walks in and the conversation stops and eyes are diverted, something’s happened.”

Here are some more signs to watch for:

  • Family heirlooms that are no longer in their usual place
  • Sudden unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts
  • Suspicious or forged signatures on cheques
  • Low self-esteem, withdrawal
  • Evidence of fear
  • Tearfulness
  • Reluctance to speak openly
  • Helplessness
  • Insomnia or fatigue
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Open wounds cuts, punctures
  • Signs of being restrained
Schuehlein says it’s easy to miss the signs when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your caregiving duties. “Don’t just hope it will go away,” she says. “Err on the side of caution. If you’re concerned, have the conversation.”

So, what should you do if you suspect abuse?

  • If serious physical harm has occurred, call 911 immediately. Don’t try to intervene yourself.
  • Otherwise, call the Seniors Safety Line at 1-866-299-1011. You’ll get information about local agencies and support services.
  • To limit the risk of financial abuse, ensure that a Power of Attorney for Property in in place.
  • If you’re concerned about the behavior of a paid care provider, escalate the concern to her or his manager. Ensure the organization conducts a full investigation.
  • If it’s a family member you suspect of abuse, share your concerns with him or her. Avoid jumping to conclusions and making false accusations. In some instances they don’t even realize that it’s happening.
  • Call a local agency and arrange for an in-home “wellness check.”
It’s important to remember, says Schuehlein, that, “Seniors have the right to live at risk if they choose to.” In other words, if the person you’re caring for is competent and doesn’t want help dealing with abuse, you can’t force them to act. Says Schuehlein: “Give them support, be non-judgemental, and hope they change their mind down the road.”

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Editor's note: In any earlier version of this article, it was stated that some abuse is inadvertent. Any abuse can and should be prevented and the abuser stopped. 
Do you have questions about elder abuse? Do you have insights to share with caregivers? Please email us... we’d love to talk to you!