Isolation is Leading to Self-Neglect by Seniors
Because of the coronavirus, our elder population is experiencing isolation from their family and extended community interaction, increasing the likelihood of neglect. With the flu season fast on approach this isolation and the possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19, older Americans will likely continue living 2020 in mostly solitary circumstances. Rising instances of loneliness can give way to clinical depression and foster feelings of hopelessness.
Some of the common signs that an older adult is self-neglecting include changes in how they communicate and a lack of interest in family or community events. A loved one who always presented themselves in a put-together manner may suddenly stop bothering to dress for the day, or perhaps they have gained or lost a startling amount of weight. A once tidy home may now be piled high with unopened mail and heaps of garbage. They may stop or have difficulty managing their medications. Their demeanor and mood may change, and often there is the incidence of a fall.
Neglect is often a person depriving themselves of necessary care, whether it be adequate nutrition and hydration, medical care, hygiene, and a suitable living environment. In some instances, neglect may be an extension of diminished capacity of physical or mental ability to provide self-care. In some cases, negligence can be the precursor to abuse by an active or passive negligent caregiver. As reported by the American Society on Aging (ASA) outside of financial abuse, the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers identifies self-neglect as the more commonly encountered situation than physical or sexual abuse or neglect by others.
Each state has a mandatory reporting law requiring certain people to provide information about suspected abuse to the proper authorities. Typically, these people are nurses and doctors, as well as wellness check programs through CMS services. Some states require any person who suspects elder abuse to report the situation. Know your state law for reporting and be mindful that your elder loved one is isolated from medical professional groups who report signs of neglect.
If you have not already implemented virtual strategies to combat loneliness for your older adult, do so immediately. There are many communication, safety, health, and entertainment apps designed specifically with seniors in mind. If your loved one cannot manage a smartphone, use a larger tablet device. If that is unachievable, get a smart speaker where voice communication can provide the sorts of contact options, safety, and activity your senior needs. Contact your loved one routinely. Implement fall detectors and set up video surveillance to identify any problems. Be sure not to create an overly invasive system allowing your senior some degree of privacy to protect their dignity. Always use firewalls, passwords, and other security options to address privacy concerns.
Take advantage of community programs such as Meals on Wheels or identify programs that check-in on independent living older adults or high-risk households. If they are so inclined, set up the technology for your family member to participate in the many religious services currently being conducted live on Facebook. Connect with their neighbors or local friends to request they occasionally check in on your family member.
AARP recommends whatever the legal obligation in your state to report any sign of elder neglect or abuse. If you believe the person may be in imminent danger, call 911 immediately. If not, address the concern with the person directly or with their caregiver or family member. Remember, you may be misinterpreting the situation. After you have raised your concerns, listen carefully to the other person's point of view. There may be a quick fix for a small problem, or it could be something more profound. Act deliberately but with compassion. If you meet with resistance to change but still believe help is needed, learn how you can report your concern. Your local police department may have an Elder Affairs unit. Nationally, you can contact support through a public service of the US Administration on Aging called the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116), connecting you with local protective service agencies.
If you believe your loved one can no longer manage their health, safety, and wellness needs, we can help by providing advice on legal options to protect your loved one. We would be honored to talk with you. And if you are outside of Florida, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.
Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation. He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.