How Can GPs Spot Elder Abuse?

Abuse can happen to anyone, but older people are often more at risk if they are vulnerable. Sadly, many older people experience abuse or neglect at the hands of someone they trust. So what can GPs do to help?

What is elder abuse?

The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as ‘a single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person’.

On 15th June each year, people around the UK come together to raise awareness of this issue for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The message of this day is clear: that elder abuse end and that older people should no longer experience neglect and assault.

Signs and symptoms of abuse

Abuse can take many different forms, including:

  • Physical violence in the form of hitting, pushing, force-feeding or misuse of restraint
  • Sexual abuse
  • Financial abuse, such as stealing money or possessions, controlling the individual’s wealth, committing fraud or forcing someone to make financial decisions against their will
  • Emotional or mental abuse such as bullying, intimidation, humiliation or threats
  • Discriminatory abuse, including unfair or abusive treatment based on the person’s sexuality, ethnicity, age or gender
  • Institutional abuse in the form of poorly maintained environment or treatment
  • Neglect, such as denying basic needs or care

GPs should be aware of the signs of potential abuse in their elderly patients, including:

  • Changes in behaviour, such as aggression, depression or anger that is out of character
  • Anxiety or sudden withdrawal
  • Fear of being left alone with specific individuals
  • Unexplained injuries, fractures or difficulty in sitting or walking
  • Lack of money for basic needs
  • Deterioration of personal hygiene and appearance

How can GPs help to tackle elder abuse?

If you suspect an elderly patient is suffering abuse, you should take action to get them the help and support they need.

Make sure the patient feels safe: Firstly, you should try to talk to the person in a private, safe environment. Here, you can discuss your concerns openly.

Respect their wishes: It’s important to make sure the patient feels listened to, but accept that they might not be willing to talk about what’s happening. People who have experienced abuse will often deny any wrongdoing because they are afraid of being subject to further abuse, or else they might not realise they’re being abused.

Talk to the family: Another option is to gather input from family members. However, you should bear in mind that this may result in safeguarding issues. In such an instance, discussing any concerns should first take place with the patient before anyone else. Whether or not the patient has the capacity to make decisions or access help is also crucial, as this will impact how this issue is handled and whether third-parties (such as social services) are needed.

Help elderly patients in triage: One of the most beneficial steps GPs can take in tackling the issue of elder abuse is to take on more out-of-hours work. GPs play a pivotal role in recognising, assessing and managing the abuse and neglect of older people. But many out-of-hours centres around the UK are incredibly short-staffed, which may result in elderly patients not getting the help they need.

If you feel that you could make a difference to the lives and wellbeing of patients of all ages and backgrounds, why not apply for a position as an out-of-hours GP? Further details can be found on our jobs page.