What would you guess is the leading type of elder abuse?
Some people might say it’s financial exploitation, physical abuse, or even abandonment. All of those are awful, and they certainly get a lot of press. However, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the leading cause of elder abuse is self-neglect. Over 144,000 cases have been reported in 2019.
For reference, that’s more than the next five categories of elder abuse (neglect, financial exploitation, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse) combined.
What exactly is self-neglect?
Think of it as inability to perform essential self-care, such as providing yourself with food, shelter, personal hygiene, and medications. The scary thing about self-neglect is that it hides in plain sight. Your neighbor who hasn’t left the house in months, your aging parent who insists he can get by without help, and that family two streets over with large appliances dumped in the front yard and a rusting van in the driveway could all be suffering from self-neglect — and you wouldn’t even know it.
So, what should you do if someone you care about appears to be sliding into self-neglect?
Stay away from trying to “diagnose” the problem
There could be many reasons contributing to self-neglect. Some might be medical, others physical or emotional.
Sometimes, multiple reasons snowball.
For example, your neighbor’s wife may have passed away, followed by an accidental fall that fractured his hip. Those two factors could make it extremely difficult for him to take care of his body, prepare food, and get to medical appointments. Yet from the outside, it would just look like an aging neighbor that you haven’t seen in a while, or a church member who hasn’t attended service in the months since his wife’s funeral.
The other problem with issuing a diagnosis is that it puts the problem into a neat box and allows you to go back to living your own life. If you have convinced yourself that the issue is medical (or emotional, or perhaps that person is just “crazy”), then it’s easy to walk away from someone who needs help.
Break the cycle of self-isolation
The top contributing factor to many self-neglect cases is isolation.
According to the Pew Research Center, people aged 60 and older spend over 10 waking hours completely alone, which can have a negative effect on their well-being. In fact, loneliness is more lethal for health than obesity, inactivity, or even smoking.
As humans, we all need deep bonds with our family and close friends. However, low-intimacy interactions are just as important. It might seem like just saying hello or chatting about the weather should not make a difference, but it does. And that’s the good news, because neighbors, shop keepers, librarians, checkout clerks, and bank tellers all have an important role to play in staving off loneliness.
So, if you notice that someone you care about is slipping into self-neglect (or just doesn’t seem to have that sparkle in their eye), know that you can help. It doesn’t have to take hours of your day. A simple hello and a smile will go a long way.
Research help options
Can anything else be done to help?
The answer will depend on the specifics of the situation, and on how close you are to the person who’s struggling. Here are a few ideas to consider.
If someone you love needs assistance with activities of daily living (bathing, going to the bathroom, eating), Medicare or Medicaid could help. Look into local services that can assist with physical tasks that get difficult with age. Your local Agency of Aging could connect you to charities and nonprofit organizations that can help seniors, such as the Lions Club and Meals on Wheels.
New technology could offer help, as well. Several developers are working on social connection apps to help combat loneliness. For example, Papa is an app (quite similar to Uber) that allows subscribers to “rent a grandkid” by the hour. Papa pairs older adults and families with motivated college students for companionship and assistance with everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping, meal preparation, or light cleaning. Papa Pals can also play board games or spend time sharing stories around the dining table.
You can help prevent self-neglect
Self-neglect is a silent killer. Unlike terrible stories of senior financial abuse, it doesn’t get national news coverage. However, as the case count climbs up, so should our collective awareness about this problem. If you worry about someone in your community or in your family, know that you have the power to change the situation for the better. Don’t discount the impact you can have through the smallest of interactions.