June 14, 2016 / 8:30 PM / 2 years ago

Potentially abusive behavior may be common among family caregivers

(Reuters Health) - When elderly people are dependent on family caregivers, potentially abusive carer behaviors are common and need to be detected early, before the situation deteriorates into elder abuse, researchers warn.

In a survey of family caregivers, more than a third had engaged in potentially harmful behavior toward their older family member in the previous three months

Such harmful behaviors might include insulting, swearing, or screaming or yelling at the older person or roughly handling them.

“These types of behaviors can act as early warning signs to more serious harmful future psychological and physical abusive behaviors,” lead researcher Attracta Lafferty, a researcher at University College Dublin School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems in Ireland, told Reuters Health by email.

Often, caregivers may not realize their behaviors are potentially harmful to their care recipient, Lafferty said.

Elder abuse is a growing problem, affecting at least 1 in 10 older Americans, a previous study found.

As the population of older adults continues to rise, so does the need for families to provide care for them. By 2030, the U.S Census Bureau estimates there will be 71 million older adults - or about one in five Americans.

With the help of the Irish Department of Social Protection, Lafferty and colleagues sent an anonymous survey to family caregivers who received an allowance for the full-time care they provided to relatives aged 65 and older. Out of the 4,000 caregivers contacted, 2,311 completed the survey.

As reported in the journal Age and Ageing, the caregivers ranged in age from 19 to 92. Most were women. About 50 percent had been caring for a parent and 31.1 percent had been caring for a spouse for an average of 6.8 years. More than half had only some or no formal education, and most were unemployed.

Researchers asked the caregivers to report the frequency with which they engaged in five potentially harmful psychological behaviors and five potentially harmful physical behaviors in the previous three months.

Overall, 36.8 percent of family caregivers reported engaging in potentially harmful behavior. One in six (17 percent) reported that these behaviors occurred “at least sometimes” - a cut-off that indicates a greater risk for elder abuse, the authors say.

Psychologically harmful behaviors were reported by 35.9 percent, with nearly 17 percent saying these occurred “at least sometimes.”

Behaviors that could potentially cause physical harm to the care recipient were reported by 8 percent, with 2.7 percent reporting these occurred “at least sometimes.”

The most frequent behavior reported was “using a harsh tone of voice, insulting or swearing at the older person or calling them names,” according to the paper.

“We all know that abuse does escalate,” said Dr. Pamela Teaster, Professor of Human Development at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech, who was not involved with the study. “If we can identify this behavior before it crosses over to criminal or more damaging behavior, we can prevent it from causing irreparable damage.”

But Teaster pointed out that the study’s findings don’t necessarily apply to everyone. “Most people aren’t on welfare so they carry a different set of issues than people who are,” she said. “Support that’s available to people in other groups isn’t necessarily available people on welfare.”

What can make a difference is offering tools and support to caregivers, regardless of their economic or social background, Teaster said. She recommends offering classes on how to take care of the elderly.

“When we have children, we go to parenting classes,” she said. “We can’t assume that people will know how to take care of their elderly relatives.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/1UOdgn5 Age and Ageing, online May 25, 2016.

This version of the story revises last sentences of paragraphs 15 and 16.

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