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Abuse Thrives in Pandemic

Guest post author Gregory Peebles is a team member at CCM whose work focuses on helping aging adults and folks with limited independence by navigating resources and support to help them discover and lead their best life. Gregory has been a key member of the CCM team for over a decade. – Charlotte

I know I’m not the only one who would rather not talk about abuse.

Wanting to avoid difficult conversations is natural. Unfortunately, the social discomfort surrounding abuse makes a space for abusers to thrive unquestioned. So, if you have a dependent older loved one, now is the time to take stock. Since COVID-19 is a part of our daily lives, the physical distancing necessary put in place precisely to protect vulnerable older adults makes abuse even easier to perpetuate. Now, with fewer eyes watching, there’s even less fear of consequence than before the pandemic. This article will discuss the nature of abuse and the identity of abusers while offering professional experience across three common abuse scenarios: “The New Friend”, “The Family Secret”, and “The Forgotten One.”

The old slogan holds true: “Hurt people hurt people”…

Abusers: Who Are They?
Once a person has made the decision to continue the cycle of abuse, they’ve relieved us of making excuses for them. Still, the old slogan holds true: “Hurt people hurt people”, so it’s no secret that many abusers are themselves victims. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as one real “give away” regarding an abuser’s personality. The sad truth is that abusers can seem to be very normal people. Even sadder is that abuse often comes from the very people victims love. The statistics tell us that older adults experience abuse from spouses or adult children at a rate at least as high as older adults in institutions experience neglect or deliberate abuse[1].

A Sneaking Suspicion
Now that you think of it, maybe an older person you know might be a victim. Something has been off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it, and no wonder. You’re not an abuser, so you don’t know what abuse “looks like” with older adults. Abuse manifests in as many ways as there are abusers, but here are some common warning indicators.

  • Physicalbruises, grab marks, sprained or broken bones, skin burns; otherwise, disheveled appearance, poor hygiene, or weight loss
  • Emotionalwithdrawal, listlessness, lack of interest; conversely, can exhibit increased anxiety or irritability
  • Financialsudden changes in spending, request to change financial guardianship, or request for additional funds for/from caregivers

If that checklist didn’t give you any pause, that’s great news. However, The Word Health Organization (WHO) reports that as many as 1 in 6 older adults is a survivor of one type of abuse or another², so unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that your older loved one is absolutely safe. I mean, surely, they would tell you if something were wrong, right? Well, not necessarily.

As frustrating as it might seem, older adults don’t necessarily disclose their abusive situations, most often because:

As frustrating as it might seem, older adults don’t necessarily disclose their abusive situations, most often because:

  1. They have compromised agency of some form (i.e., dementia, etc.);
  2. They depend on the abuser for care/financial assistance; or
  3. They have attempted to disclose and been conversationally redirected.

These three reasons for non-disclosure correspond directly to three fairly common scenarios of abuse:

  1. The New Friend (compromised agency);
  2. The Family Secret (dependency); and
  3. The Forgotten One (redirection).

We’re going to look at each of these quickly and consider their specific warning indicators.

Let’s look at some “real life” examples. (All names have been changed, and some details altered slightly to protect the victims.)

“I mean, surely they would tell you if something were wrong, right? Well, not necessarily.”

The New Friend
Ed, a 62-year-old retired banking exec in the developing stages of undiagnosed dementia, met Tanya (36) a few months ago on a dating website. He doesn’t mention Tanya to his family at her request. She says she didn’t want to cause any trouble for him because of the difference in their ages. Ed, lonely for the last four years since the death of his spouse, falls quickly in love with Tanya, who doesn’t seem to mind the whirlwind relationship at all. In a casual phone call, Ed mentions to his oldest daughter, Susan, that he is happier than he can remember being with Tanya, whom he accidentally calls by his late spouse’s name. He has hope for the future, and he wants to marry. Susan, shocked to hear about marriage in the first conversation regarding Tanya, asks to meet Ed’s new friend. Tanya agrees, but regularly cancels scheduled virtual meetings; meanwhile, Ed’s lawyer calls Susan because Tanya contacted him about changing Ed’s will. She wants it done as soon as possible. Susan obviously wants Ed to be happy, but she knows that this is a problem; however, she has absolutely no idea how best to respond. She doesn’t even realize yet that this is an example of abuse.

Ed is an easy victim, because his abuser has rightly assessed that Ed, who is lonely, is also not entirely in control of his cognition. For Tanya, Ed might as well have been carrying a flashing sign. In the world of the pandemic, new, non-virtual friends may not be as common, but anyone with an Internet connection can continue to socialize virtually, and the Internet is a place where it’s easy to be in disguise. Older adults connected to the Web are at as great a risk of this type of abuse as before in non-virtual space. Luckily, Susan already has a relationship with a lawyer, so she can begin the process of securing Ed’s estate against the abuser’s attack. But it’s not going to be easy. This type of relational, emotional, and financial abuse is particularly insidious because it can turn the abuse victim against the people trying to protect them. It’s not always easy to talk to older family about love and sexuality, but asking uncomfortable questions can stop this kind of abuse before the grift is a score.

Denise regularly calls her mother names. She also leverages care to control Anne’s behavior with phrases like, “If you don’t stop complaining, I won’t come back tomorrow, and we’ll see how much you have to complain about then.”

The Family Secret
Denise (52) has cared for her mother, Anne (74) since Anne fell down the stairs leading into the garage,  leaving her mostly immobile. If it weren’t for her only local daughter, Anne would already be impoverished paying for the required care. Unfortunately, Denise has come to resent her mother deeply for the level of care she needs. Denise regularly calls her mother names. She also leverages caregiving to control Anne’s behavior with phrases like, “If you don’t stop complaining, I won’t come back tomorrow, and we’ll see how much you have to complain about then.” When other family members occasionally call to check up on her, they notice that Anne, who was quite opinionated before, always carefully chooses her words now. They notice that she is effusive in her expression of gratitude for tiny things like a phone call, or a card. When asked about Denise, Anne quickly says how thankful she is for Denise’s help and just as quickly, perhaps even a bit more noticeably, changes the subject. It isn’t until Denise makes an accidental call to another family member where she can be heard berating Anne for needing care that Anne’s situation changes.

To admit to being victimized by a person’s own child is a wound to the heart, but unfortunately, Denise and Anne’s story is not at all uncommon. The speed with which a family caregiving dynamic can turn abusive is shocking. Either because, like Denise, the caregiver resents their position, or even because a child may find the time ripe for taking emotional revenge from a perceived wrong decades ago, family caregivers of dependent adults must understand that exploiting the power dynamic between the caregiver and care receiver is a recipe for a batch of poison that will sicken anyone it touches.

The Forgotten One
Tim (60), who is disabled, has been in and out of care institutions his whole life. He’s used to “going it alone”, and he’s used to having to wait long periods of time on someone to help him accomplish something simple, like toileting. The assisted living facility where Tim currently makes his life provides basic assistance for their residents, but the staff regularly verbalize where Tim can hear it that they find Tim’s care to be too much trouble. Tim tells the staff director, but he is rebuffed. When the pandemic is announced, facility caregivers feel empowered to decide that they will help Tim as little as possible, the result of which leaves Tim utterly neglected and completely robbed of personal dignity. When Tim alerts the caregiver supervisors, they minimize Tim’s neglect and suggest that perhaps the facility is no longer the right fit for Tim. Tim’s family, at distance, believe Tim’s story of neglect and help arrange additional care for Tim so that Tim doesn’t have to add the stress of moving while disabled to the stress of surviving a pandemic. Tim’s additional help bridges the gap between the negligent staff and Tim’s care needs.

Going Forward
The necessary physical distancing in time of COVID-19 has turned so many families into distance caregiving situations – even when the loved one is in the same city. Consequently, we see less of our older loved ones now and depend more heavily on care provided by essential workers. While we don’t have much choice except to trust in a caregiver’s professionalism, we can insist on and help put in place virtual systems to monitor for abuse. Some families may be able to install full surveillance services, but most of us will need more frugal solutions.

The quickest way to check on your loved one is using a video call. ZOOM is a popular video conferencing application right now, but most smart phones have a video call option. If your older loved one has a smart phone, you can “FaceTime” whenever you like. Otherwise, you’ll need caregivers and others in your loved one’s life to help facilitate. My advice is to “switch it up” regarding the calls.

  • Pick different times for a virtual visit.
  • Choose different people to facilitate.
  • Redistribute and reorganize expectation so that you’re not helping the abuser with a regular, predictable schedule.

And finally, if anything seems off, ask directly. So many victims are waiting for someone to notice before they feel they can speak. De-stigmatize abuse in conversation so that if it ever happens, your loved one knows that you understand that it’s not their fault. Healing abuse is a long process. Preventing abuse and ending abuse happen when we end the silence that comes from shame.

Gregory Peebles, CSA, CDP, is an Associate Care Manager with Creative Care Management and a contemplative monastic in Chicago (CMJ). When not studying or coordinating services for clients, Gregory enjoys attending and making music at Liederstube. He looks forward to a time post-COVID when this will be possible again




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