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Preventing Maltreatment in Vulnerable Adults

Maltreatment is rampant in our society today.  With the advances in connectivity, social media, and information have come opportunities for criminals to attempt to steal from us.  No matter what your age, social status, or income someone may be attempting to steal, abuse or harm us by using something as seemingly innocent as a text, email, or phone call.  


Scam Alert written on the road


Focusing on the types of abuse that primarily happen to seniors there is a wide variety of situations:

  • Physical abuse happens when someone causes bodily harm by hitting, pushing, or slapping. This may also include restraining an older adult against his/her will, such as locking them in a room or tying them to furniture
  • Emotional abuse, sometimes called psychological abuse, can include a caregiver saying hurtful words, yelling, threatening, or repeatedly ignoring the older adult. Keeping that person from seeing close friends and relatives is another form of emotional abuse.
  • Neglect occurs when the caregiver does not try to respond to the older adult's needs. This may include physical, emotional, and social needs, or withholding food, medications, or access to health care.
  • Abandonment is leaving an older adult who needs help when alone--without planning for his or her care.
  • Sexual abuse involves a caregiver forcing an older adult to watch or be part of sexual acts.
  • Financial abuse happens when money or belongings are stolen from an older adult. It can include forging checks, taking someone else's retirement or Social Security benefits, or using a person's credit cards and bank accounts without their permission. It also includes changing names on a will, bank account, life insurance policy, or title to a house without permission.

 While abuse in seniors primarily happens to women there are many instances that involve men.  Seniors that are lonely or depend on others to help with their activities of daily living are even more at risk. 

Understanding the Signs of Maltreatment

Warning signs of physical Abuse:

  • Changes in behavior (for example, refusing to go places or see people they typically like to go or see).
  • Changes in emotional states (for example, the person is more withdrawn, nervous, fearful, sad, or anxious).
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises, bleeding.
  • Broken bones.
  • Burns.
  • Overmedication.
  • Isolation.

 Warning signs of neglect include:

  • Dehydrated or malnourished.
  • Poor hygiene (for example, dirty hair, skin, clothing) or strong body odor.
  • Isolation.
  • Lack of food and other amenities in the home.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Pressure sores.
  • Unpaid bills.
  • Lack of proper medical care or treatment.
  • Animal or insect infestation in the home.

Warning signs of exploitation include:

  • Withdrawals of significant amounts of cash from banks unexplained or in the presence of others.
  • Forged checks.
  • Unexplained/unknown credit card or other charges.
  • Unpaid bills.
  • Limited or no access to information about finances.
  • Unknown/unfamiliar creditors, such as credit card companies.
  • Reliance on caregivers who have a history of substance abuse or other mental health issues.
  • Significant dependency for care or assistance on caregivers or others who do not have much prior history with the individual (for example, a person’s new “best friend” or neighbor who was never really involved before).
  • Isolation.
  • Multiple phone or in-person requests for money, or promises of a big “win” or “prize”.
  • Solicitations for money for goods and services that seem “too good to be true.”

How You Can Help

Ring Binder with inscription Investigations on Background of Working Table with Office Supplies, Glasses, Reports. Toned Illustration. Business Concept on Blurred Background.

 An advocate is someone who fights for something or someone, especially someone who fights for the rights of others.  In many cases, these people cannot fight for themselves for one reason or another.  While seniors are automatically considered legally vulnerable as a population group, others over the age of 18 whose ability to perform the normal activities of daily living or to provide for their own care or protection is impaired due to a mental, emotional, sensory, long-term physical, or developmental disability or dysfunction, or brain damage, may be considered a vulnerable adult. 

 How you help people in these groups often depends on the circumstances.  Seniors may just need a safer way to interact with the world and stave off loneliness.  Something like a tablet that isn’t so easy for people to scam them, and provides safer cell phone service to keep scammers at bay.  If you’re a POA for finance, you can sit down and review financial information regularly and look for issues that may be alarming.  Visiting often and looking for the signs of maltreatment can certainly help with prevention as potential abusers notice the interaction. In some circumstances, you may need to refer them over to a governmental agency tasked with protecting vulnerable individuals.   Here are some additional ideas and resources.  

Being a Reporter

In Minnesota, you can report suspected maltreatment by calling the Minnesota Abuse Reporting Center at 844-880-1574 or visit  This is a toll-free call available 24/7 365 days a year.  You can provide confidential information and the appropriate investigative agencies will be notified to follow up on your report.  You do not need to identify yourself.  

When you look at the task of preventing maltreatment on a large scale, or you look at all the ways someone can be abused it can become overwhelming.  On a personal scale looking at those situations that come up and acting on them, is one way of helping all vulnerable adults without taking on an insurmountable challenge. 



National Institute on Aging

Minnesota Department of Human Services

Special Needs Alliance


Aging Issues

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