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Self-Neglect: A Hidden Type of Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is much more common than most people realize, and it can occur in many different ways. This usually includes the abuse by a perpetrator against an elderly person. However, one of the least talked about types of elder abuse is self-neglect. Often referred to as a hidden type of elder abuse, self-neglect is a major problem that can result in long-lasting physical and emotional pain and suffering for a victim.

Signs of Self-Neglect in Elders

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) says that “Self-neglect is characterized as the behavior of an elderly person that threatens his/her own health or safety.”

In general, self-neglect manifests as an older person refusing or failing to provide themselves with adequate hydration, nutrition, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene, medication, and safety. Self-neglect needs to be distinguished between a person who is mentally unable to care for themselves and a person who is mentally competent. Self-neglect is typically characterized by a person who is mentally competent and understands the consequences of their actions, yet makes the conscious or voluntary decision to engage in actions that threaten their health or safety.

Some of the most common signs of self-neglect include the following:

  • Unsanitary or cluttered conditions in the home (including hoarding behavior)
  • Spoiled food in the kitchen
  • Dressing inappropriately for the climate
  • Unpaid bills or mail piling up
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Social isolation and obvious depression
  • Dehydration or weight loss
  • Trouble managing health appointments or medications
  • Dangerous habits, such as leaving the front door unlocked or leaving the stove on
  • Not properly caring for a family pet

What to Do if You Think a Loved One is Self-Neglecting

There are various steps that family members can take if they think their elderly loved one is not properly caring for themselves. First, this situation can be tricky because self-neglect involves a mentally competent adult. Older adults who are capable of making decisions on their own have the right to make those decisions, even if you do not agree with their lifestyle choices.

However, self-neglect could also be a sign that there is a more serious condition, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. You should try to convince your loved one to obtain proper screening to rule out any medical conditions that may cause self-neglect behaviors.

If you do decide to step in and help an elderly person who you think is self-neglecting, you need to expect to be met with resistance. It could be the case that your loved one will accept your assistance, but many elderly people value their independence and will resent any kind of interference in their life.

These situations are best started with a conversation that involves you discussing how you want them to be safe and asking if there is anything you can do to help make their life a little easier. You may want to involve other trusted family members if you think your elderly loved one will respond better to somebody else.

Distinguishing Self-Neglect from Other Forms of Elder Abuse

Often, perpetrators of elder abuse will use the excuse that an elderly person is self-neglecting when the reality is that someone else is causing them harm. If you suspect that your elderly loved one is being abused by another individual or caregiver, you may need to involve law enforcement officials or a state regulatory agency if the abuse is occurring inside of an assisted living or medical facility.