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Published June 08, 2013, 11:30 PM

Minding Our Elders: Neighbor concerned about possible elder abuse

DEAR CAROL: I have a neighbor who cares for her mother in her home along with two teenagers. She also works part time and her husband travels, so I think she’s under a lot of strain.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: I have a neighbor who cares for her mother in her home along with two teenagers. She also works part time and her husband travels, so I think she’s under a lot of strain.

Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease, so my neighbor has an in-home care agency come in for a few hours a day while she works. My concern is that I hear her mother wailing for long periods of time. It’s not quite a scream, but the sound is disturbing. I hear this wailing when the other caregivers are there, too, so I don’t think someone is causing the mother harm, but it would be terrible if I didn’t report any kind of abuse. I’d hate to get my neighbor into trouble, but I don’t want to ignore someone who needs help. – Ginny

DEAR GINNY: I receive variations on your letter from time to time. Since June is National Elder Abuse Awareness, you question seemed ideal for this particular column.

Elder abuse a valid concern for neighbors since vulnerable people in home settings can be at risk. While sometimes elder abuse is a horrifying, deliberate attempt to control or humiliate an elder, it can also happen more unintentionally when decent people are pushed beyond their tolerance of stress. Families often enter into caregiving out of love or a sense of duty, only to find that they’ve taken on more than they can realistically handle. They can feel overloaded and if pushed, may strike out physically and/or verbally. Vulnerable elders are dependent on caring people to notice and report dangerous or abusive situations.

That being said, your neighbor does have some functioning safeguards in place since she has other caregivers coming into the home. These caregivers would be obligated to report any sign of abuse. Also, since you hear the wailing when the care agency workers are there as well as when they are not, likely this is part of the mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. This wailing/screaming is not uncommon with late stage Alzheimer’s and can baffle the best of clinicians. I’ve heard the sound myself and it’s heartbreaking.

You can do a few things to put your mind at rest as well as to help your neighbor. Stay friendly and be open to letting her vent when she feels frustrated or tired. Under the circumstances you describe, I’d say you could let her know that you hear her mother crying out, and that you feel badly for them all. Tell her that you’ve heard that this can be a common Alzheimer’s behavior and that you hope her mother’s doctor can find a way to help.

Elder abuse is all too real, so your awareness is commendable. The time to become especially concerned in a case like this would be if the caregiver eliminated outside help and refused to let anyone else become involved in the elder’s care.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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