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Elder Self-Neglect – How to Recognize It & Help

signs of elder abuse and neglect

Commonly going unreported, elder self-neglect is a growing public health and human rights issue in New Jersey and throughout the United States. According to a survey of eldercare experts by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (NAPGCM):

  • 92% of participating care managers indicated that elderly self-neglect is a significant problem
  • 94% of participating care managers indicated that elderly self-neglect frequently or mostly goes unreported.

According to the Public Policy Institute of the AARP, close to half of the cases reported to Adult Protective Services (APS) involve self-neglect. By definition, elder self-neglect does not involve a third-party. It is, however, considered a form of elder abuse

What is Elder Self-Neglect?

Elder self-neglect is a term that describes a senior citizen living in a way that jeopardizes their health and safety. This inability to perform essential self-care is often due to “physical or mental impairment or diminished capacity” according to the Elder Justice Act.

Elder self-neglect is typically a senior citizen’s inability to provide themselves with basic daily needs, such as adequate:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Medical care
  • Hygiene
  • Clothing
  • Safety
  • Shelter

Elderly self-neglect can also be applied to the inability to manage financial affairs.

Self-Neglect Signs and Symptoms

When you visit a senior citizen, look for these signs and symptoms of an elderly person that may be unable to care for themselves properly:

  • Indications of poor personal hygiene, such as not bathing, washing hair or taking care of finger and toenails
  • Signs of dehydration, malnutrition, and other unattended health conditions, such as skin rashes, bedsores, infections, and injuries
  • Evidence of unsanitary living conditions, such as unpleasant smells, piles of trash, insect or animal infestations
  • Evidence of unsafe living conditions, such as a home in disrepair or inadequate plumbing or heating/air conditioning
  • Indications that medical care is not being scheduled, medicine is not being managed properly, or medication is being refused
  • Absence of medical aids such as glasses, dentures, hearing aids, wheelchairs, or walkers 
  • Signs of financial problems, such as bounced checks, unpaid bills, or utility shut-offs
  • There is not enough food in the residence
  • There is a lack of clean clothing or clothing that is not appropriate for the current weather
  • Increased disorientation or confusion
  • Indications of inadequate sleep

How to Help the Elderly Unable to Care For Themselves

When confronted with potential elder self-neglect, there are some things you can do to offer assistance and support, including helping the senior:

  • avoid isolation with visits, phone calls, driving, etc.
  • get help from others from neighbors, charitable organizations, or state agencies. 
  • take care of their situation such as cleaning and repairing their living space.
  • schedule and get to medical appointments.
  • access social interaction, such as at a senior center.

You should also monitor the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and be prepared to get help from agencies, such as Adult Protective Services (APS).

A dilemma when trying to help a self-neglecting senior citizen can be balancing the senior’s safety and well being with their right to independence. The person you want to help may refuse it. APS cannot force someone to accept help or remove someone from their home against their will.

The situation may get to the point that, once all other avenues have been exhausted, the senior citizen must be found incompetent by the courts with a legal guardian appointed to make decisions on their behalf. 

How to Report Unsafe Living Conditions of Elders

If you have observed a situation that may be elder self-neglect and feel the need to report it, consider contacting:

  • New Jersey Adult Protective Services:  609-588-6501
  • The State of New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Aging Services (DoAS): 1-877-222-3737 (for access to aging services in your county)
  • New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services: (800) 367-6543
  • National Center on Elder Abuse: 1-855-500-3537