Psychological abuse, also known as emotional abuse, occurs when one person in a relationship of any kind causes unnecessary emotional trauma to the other through non-physical means. Psychological abuse can be either verbal or nonverbal if the abuser uses their power to isolate, scare, or intimidate the victim. Nursing homes can pose a particular danger of psychological abuse because of the power relationship present between a resident and their caretaker. Often, residents are dependent upon the staff for their basic needs, including food, water, social interaction, bathing, and cleanliness. If the resident feels intimidated, they may not speak up about their needs, which can lead to a spiral of abuse and neglect.
Along with neglect, psychological abuse is one of the most common forms of nursing home abuse because it is easy to perpetrate and difficult to prove without physical evidence. In addition, medical issues or cognitive impairment from aging may prevent victims from being able to articulate their experience. For this reason, abuse often goes unreported, and it is hard to know how many elderly individuals may be suffering in silence.
The National Center on Elder Abuse conducted a study in 2012 recording the frequency of reported incidences of abuse in elderly populations that resided in nursing homes. They found that 21-24% of abuse cases reported were solely psychological or emotional abuse and that more than half of abuse cases in the elderly population included some form of psychological abuse in addition to other complaints. Often, psychological abuse occurs concurrently with other forms of abuse and can be the reason why residents fail to notify anyone about physical, sexual, or financial abuse.
Types of Psychological Abuse in Nursing Homes
Psychological and emotional abuse can take many forms but generally fall into two major categories, verbal and nonverbal. Verbal abuse may consist of
- Yelling at the resident
- Humiliating or shaming the resident in front of other residents or in private
- Insulting or mocking the resident if they have difficulty performing tasks
- Talking about a resident to other staff loudly and openly in order to demean them
- Blaming the resident or accusing them
- Threatening the patient with physical or sexual abuse
- Ignoring or trivializing a residents concerns
Nonverbal psychological abuse can be more subtle and difficult to notice, especially for the victim. It may include
- Isolating the resident from social activities or their family
- Ignoring the resident when they ask for assistance or make conversation with the staff person
- Moving objects that the resident needs, such as walkers, canes, or glasses, to areas where they are difficult to access
Behavioral Signs of Psychological Abuse
While it can be relatively simple to observe the signs of physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse in nursing homes can be more subtle and often continue for extended periods of time without being called out. Usually, you will have to look for behavioral signs or changes of personality in your loved one in order to catch the signs of elder abuse. If you notice any of the following symptoms, you may consider taking steps to protect your loved one:
- A sudden change in personality or behavior, including uncharacteristic anger, anxiety, or sadness
- Withdrawal from social activities or hobbies which they used to enjoy
- Proclivity toward self-harm such as cutting or suicidal thoughts
- Failure to care for themselves physically or take their medication
- Sudden or dramatic changes in eating or sleeping schedules or weight
- Low self-esteem
- Deferring to one particular staff person more than others
- Fear of a particular caretaker
- Repetitive behavior such as rocking back and forth, pulling one's hair, grinding teeth, or sucking on the hand
Warning Signals in a Nursing Home
Although psychological abuse can be a systematic problem involving many staff members, it often stems from a particular caretaker who fails to care for their patient properly. If you are concerned that your loved one may be exhibiting symptoms of psychological abuse, there are some warning signs to look for in their caretakers, such as
- Stressed, tired, or harried-looking staff
- History of elder abuse or substance abuse
- Treating a resident like a child or an animal instead of an adult
- Preventing the resident from speaking to you or their friends alone
- Becoming the only caretaker to your loved one, which may indicate that they have too much control with no one watching them
- Acting hostile or evasive when questioned by you or other staff
- Exaggerated concern or lack of concern for you or your loved one
Long Term Consequences
Psychological abuse can have serious and far-reaching consequences and can even contribute to wrongful death. Although the abuser may not be physically interfering with the patient, psychological abuse can lead to stress disorders, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder which can negatively influence a person's ability to heal themselves or fight off infection. In addition, psychological stress can increase the likelihood of falls which can lead to severe injury or death. Weight loss induced by anxiety can further weaken an elderly person and make them particularly susceptible. It is therefore vital to take instances of psychological abuse as seriously as those of physical, sexual, or financial abuse. Victims are often unable or unwilling to take action for themselves and rely on friends and families to protect them physically and mentally.
Taking Action against Psychological Abuse
It is important to hold nursing homes responsible for the actions of their employees so that toxic cultures do not persist and allow other vulnerable individuals to become victims. If you believe that your loved one is being psychologically abused, you may feel helpless, but there are steps to take. A personal injury lawyer can help you launch an investigation into the facility and obtain medical records, witnesses, and interviews with staff. they can also advise you as to which organizations to contact and how to protect your loved ones legal and financial interests. Call trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian today at 800.529.6162 or contact them online for a free case evaluation.