I think many of us have read the staggering statistics on elder abuse: 1 in 10 Americans aged 60+ have experienced some sort of abuse and each year as many as 5 million elders are abused. But for me, these numbers became so much more real when someone was abused in my family.
My story starts with my mother. Diagnosed with late stage cancer and being mostly bed ridden, I became her primary caregiver. My mom lived in a retirement community and was blessed with many friends who would visit and check in on her. With the help of her friends and a part-time housekeeper, I balanced the needs of my mother, my immediate family and my job.
At first, this caregiving arrangement seemed to work. But as the weeks progressed (and the medications increased), it became painfully clear that I needed a better plan. I reached out to mom’s housekeeper and asked if she would consider taking on more hours and helping mom with meals and medications during the daytime. My plan was to work during the day and then go to mom’s house in the evening. I thought my plan was workable… the housekeeper and my mom seemed to like each other and the housekeeper was already coming to the house, so it wasn’t like leaving mom with a stranger.
I would go to the house in the evening, check on her medications, feed her dinner and prepare her for bed. One evening while applying some lotion, I noticed bruising on her inner arm.
“Mom, how did this happen?” I asked, pointing to the bruise.
“It looks painful, do you remember anything?
On closer examination, the bruise looked like some one had grabbed her (almost as if they had left finger prints on her skin).
This is when the alarm bells began ringing… this was not an accident. SOMEONE had grabbed her forcibly (enough to leave marks).
“Please tell me what happened, I really need to know.” I repeated.
“She hurt me.” Was all she said.
“Who hurt you?”
Again, no response.
The shock hit me, then the anger and then the guilt. How could this happen (or more correctly how had I LET this happen)? That night, I checked with her neighbor (her best friend) and asked if she knew anything. Nothing. I then realized it really could only be one person, really the only person who had contact with her during the past week, the housekeeper.
I waited till next morning and when the housekeeper arrived, I walked her into mom’s room and showed her the bruises.
“Do you know how this might have happened?” I asked.
“No, no I’ve never seen that before.” Was the reply.
I pressed, “It looks like finger prints, like someone grabbed her.”
She shook her head and said “No, I don’t know. Maybe she banged her arm”
“I don’t think she banged her arm… I think someone grabbed her” I said.
With no more response from the housekeeper, I told her that I would stay with mom and she could go home for the day. That night, I spoke with my wife and explained what happened. Her immediate response was “You can’t let her alone with your mom again.”
She was right. I couldn’t trust her, she was not being honest and I had to fire her. Immediately.
After firing the housekeeper, I explained to my mom that she wasn’t going to help us anymore and I would find someone else to help. My mom was quiet during the explanation and in the passing days, not another word was shared between us about what had happened or about the housekeeper.
I share this story to remind us that this could happen to any family. It is also something you can’t always plan for and I urge everyone to learn and watch for the tell-tale signs of abuse including unexplained bruising, welts or sprains. Caring.com https://www.caring.com/articles/signs-of-elder-abuse has a wonderful article on what to look for and equally important, what to do you suspect abuse.
For families, the consequences of abuse, even minor abuse like this, are feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and the challenging need to replace caregivers with someone who is also an unknown.
For providers, it’s a reminder that every single person on your team needs to be trained to watch for – and immediately report – any signs of physical or emotional treatment that might be harmful to the person receiving care. It’s so important that you create a culture where caring – and sharing concerns, without fear of reprisals – is your top priority.
Because abuse isn’t just a statistic – it’s a real problem that each of us can help prevent.