June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15. It was launched in 2006 by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations.

Elder abuse is a largely hidden and growing problem in the United States. It is defined by law as “an act or omission, which results in a serious physical or emotional injury to an elderly person or financial exploitation of an elderly person, or the failure, inability or resistance of an elderly person to provide for himself or herself one or more of the necessities essential for physical and emotional well-being, without which the elderly person would be unable to safely remain in the community.”

Elder abuse can include physical, sexual and emotional mistreatment, neglect, and financial exploitation. Another form of elder abuse is self-neglect. 

In Massachusetts, self-neglect is a serious and reportable component of elder abuse. Older adults who are not successfully able to care for themselves, and who refuse help, are at tremendous risk of ill health and even death. According to a survey of elder care experts, self-neglect among the elderly is a growing problem that commonly goes unreported.

The survey, conducted by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, found that self-neglect among seniors is the most common form of elder abuse encountered by care managers. Self-neglect in older adults is a poorly understood problem with public health implications. Although lacking a standardized definition, it is characterized by profound inattention to health and hygiene.

Self-neglect is a complex issue. There are many things that can cause an elder to stop taking care of him or herself, including dementia, depression, disease, poverty and isolation. If an elder is deemed clinically capable of making his or her own decisions, even if there are signs of self-neglect, the individual can choose to refuse help and protective services providers (such as SeniorCare’s Protective Services Department) are bound to respect that decision. For these elders who are capable of making their own choices, there may be a societal and psychological element at play.

Children and animals — whose abuse issues, unlike elder abuse, capture major media attention — are not expected to care for themselves. But an aging adult has different self and societal pressures for self-care. They have spent their adult lives not only caring for themselves, but, in most cases, being responsible for the care of others. Adults moving into a phase of life where they need assistance to be independent can experience a challenge to their self-identity and self-worth. Asking for help can be emotionally and psychologically difficult.

Many older adults who experience a decline in their ability to take care of day-to-day matters fear that asking for help will lead to a loss of independence and possible placement in a nursing home or other long-term care facility. The paradox is that, by accepting help, a person will become more capable of maintaining his or her independence and living at home. SeniorCare’s mission is to provide and coordinate services for elders and others that enable them to continue living at home and in their communities.

SeniorCare and our community partners typically hold elder abuse awareness rallies in communities around the North Shore through the month of June. With the current COVID-19 situation, we are not able to hold those rallies this year. Please help our elder community by keeping your friends and family members in mind and checking on them regularly. Remind them to be cautious of phone calls from possible scam artists. Make sure they know that you are available if a need arises for assistance.

If you ever suspect elder self-neglect or other abuse, please call the Massachusetts-based Elder Abuse Hotline at 1-800-922-2275.

Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.

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