Social Isolation and Elder Abuse During COVID-19: What Experts Say We Can Do

Guest Contributors: Angie Guss and Crystal Doig

The COVID-19 virus has been referred to as a “hidden enemy.” The policy response to this hidden enemy was to stay home or “shelter-in-place.” As older adults participated in these policy recommendations and mandates, another opportunistic, hidden enemy strengthened itself in the sheltered shadows of COVID-19: elder abuse. Elder abuse (see list below) was already under-recognized as a public health issue (Administration for Community Living, 2020) before COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. But during this time of shelter-in-place and social isolation, elder abuse has found a breeding ground to fuel exploitation of older adults.

Reports of elder abuse have increased in the form of financial scams and family violence (Han & Masqueda, 2020) shine a direct spotlight on the current and severe problem largely hidden from the public. Fortunately, elder abuse specialists working in Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness programs have been working to minimize elder abuse in their communities and in policy advocacy. Those of us working with older adults experiencing elder abuse and exploitation know that the constant state of stress and concerns around COVID-19 has only compounded concerns about the opportunity for abuse to occur. We know that elder abuse can be minimized or prevented by engaging older adults with their community, keeping older adults active, lessening the effects of loneliness, social isolation, and depression through mental health support, and assisting family caregivers experiencing increased stress and strain, especially during the current pandemic. The COVID-19 public health crisis has presented unprecedented challenges for those experiencing elder abuse to gain access to assistance. However, there are ways that individuals, family members and friends, service organizations, and the community can respond to the enhanced risk for elder abuse to combat elder abuse.

Individual Response:

  • If involved in a domestically violent relationship, reach out to agencies who provide assistance (see list below).
  • Schedule a coffee or tea date with family and friends.
    • This increases a sense of community with others and will increase well-being and decrease risks of socially based exploitation (e.g., romance scams, COVID-19 scams).
  • Talk to family or friends about COVID-19 call you have received to help identify schemes and scams.
  • Identify friends and family to whom you can go in case of an emergency.
    • This will increase a sense of security and safety.
    • If involved in an unsafe living environment, agree on a code word with family or friend as to when to call the police.
  • Devise an escape or safety plan.

Family and Friends Response

  • Check-in with loved ones where they live, if possible, including long-term care facilities (e.g., nursing homes, assisted living).
    • During a check-in, ask your loved one questions about how they are being treated by others in the home (e.g., family members, staff).
      • Though many families with which we work have challenging family dynamics, hearing from the person who is vulnerable to abuse may be the opportunity they need to share their experience with someone who is not directly involved in the home environment.
  • Participate in activities to help reduce stress in the home.
    • This is especially useful for family caregivers who may be experiencing increased stress during shelter-in-place expectations.
  • Neighborly check-ins through waving or a brief conversation helps reduce social isolation, can lessen the risk for abuse, and provides the person experiencing abuse an opportunity to express a need for help.

Service Organization Response

  • Area Agencies on Aging can conduct regular check-ins to conduct risk assessments and provide emotional support through their Elder Abuse and Prevention and Awareness programs.
  • Offer telehealth appointments to older adults seeking your services.
    • This is especially helpful in rural communities although internet access can create barriers for older adults due to cost and availability.
  • When older adults contact your organization, incorporate questions relating to neglect and elder abuse.

Community Response

  • Financial institutions (e.g., banks) should see high dollar withdrawals from older adults as a “red flag” for potential financial exploitation.
  • Increase public service announcements about current organizations providing supports and service associated with domestic violence, sexual assault, financial hardships, crisis lines, or financial exploitation.
    • Such pubic messaging helps those experiencing abuse feel that they are not alone and that there is help available.
  • If you see or hear something, say something.
    • If you are concerned about the welfare of an older adults, calling the police is reasonable and may prevent the opportunity for intimate partner or caregiver violence to occur.

The concept of social isolation and potential elder abuse raises the concern that individuals at-risk for abuse and exploitation may not be known to the community. This concern is enhanced if there are no family members or known friends available, or limited access to a phone or internet, or if the older adult is experiencing a mental health or cognitive (e.g., dementia) change while living alone or is socially isolated. There is no easy answer to this challenge, but we think that increased awareness and an enhanced public response by service organizations, communities, and public policy can strengthen the opportunity to meet the need of individuals who are at increased risk for abuse and exploitation due to social isolation during the current public health crisis. Working together toward the common goal of reducing social isolation and elder abuse will reach those in need of supports and services and ensure that they are not forgotten.

References
  1. Administration for Community Living (2020). Elder Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC). Accessed online April 2020 at https://acl.gov/programs/elder-justice/elder-justice-coordinating-council-ejcc.
  2. Han, S.D. & Mosqueda, L. (2020). Elder abuse in the COVID-19 eral. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, April. Accessed online April 2020 at https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.16496.

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