Research published this week in Age & Ageing, the scientific journal of The British Geriatrics Society, reveals that over one-third (36.8%) of family carers engage in behaviours that may act as early warning signs. They may predict more seriously harmful future psychological or physical abuse of an older person in their care. Early identification and intervention with family carers involved in these types of “precursor” behaviours would help prevent more serious elder abuse in future and improve quality of care.
The study, which was funded by the Health Service Executive as part of the work of the National Centre for the Protection of Older People (NCPOP) at University College Dublin, found in a national survey that over a third of family carers (35.9%) reported engaging in potentially harmful behaviour with verbal abuse being commonly reported. The most frequently reported behaviour was ‘using a harsh tone of voice, insulting or swearing at the older person or calling them names’ and was reported by 12.6% of the carers. This was followed by ‘screaming or yelling’ in 8.2%, with 4.8% of carers reporting threatening older relatives with a nursing home placement or stopping care or abandoning them (4.0%). Eight percent of carers indicated that they engaged in physical potentially harmful behaviour and approximately 6.2% felt ‘afraid that they might hit or hurt’ the person they cared for. A total of 3.5% of carers reported ‘roughly handling’ and 1.4% reported that they had ‘hit or slapped’ the older person.
The report suggests that potentially abusive behaviours, including physical abuse, can act as a precursor to more serious elder abuse. Many family carers may not be aware that their behaviours have the potential to be psychologically or physically harmful. This lack of awareness highlights the importance of family carers receiving the support and skills they need to manage difficult caregiving situations, as well as the ability to recognise when they should seek help. The report concludes that, as the main providers of community care, greater emphasis should be placed upon ensuring that family carers receive adequate training and that community-based professionals, such as public health nurses, GPs, social workers and home care staff, should be given the skills to recognise behaviours that might lead to more serious cases of elder abuse.
Attracta Lafferty, one of the lead authors of the Age & Ageing paper, said:
“Health and social care professionals working with older people and their carers need to be alert to the ‘tell-tale’ signs of potentially harmful behaviours, so that appropriate help can be sought, to prevent serious cases of elder abuse from developing. Family carers should also recognise when these behaviours occur, so that they know at which point they should seek help from the relevant services and carer organisations, and avail themselves of the information, training and support services offered.”