Older Adult Abandonment

Elder abandonment, sometimes called "older adult abandonment" or "senior abandonment," is a form of older adult abuse. It occurs when a person has assumed responsibility for providing care to an elderly individual -- but then deserts that individual. 

Several types of abuse exist against older people. Older adult abandonment is a form of older adult abuse. It occurs when a person has assumed the responsibility of providing care to a dependent adult but then deserts that person.

The federal government has passed several laws to protect senior citizens from abuse. Elder abuse includes financial exploitation, financial abuse, undue influence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, self-neglect, emotional abuse, and elder abandonment. State laws' definitions of elder abandonment vary, but the general principles and goals are the same.

The National Center on Elder Abuse, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a great resource to learn more about elder abuse.

Elder Abandonment Background

Older adult abandonment is the purposeful and permanent desertion of a vulnerable adult over 65. In general, a vulnerable adult struggles to maintain their physical or mental health. This is usually because the older adult suffers from mental incapacity or disability. The victim may be left at their home, a hospital, an assisted living facility, a nursing home, or a public location. The person doing the abandoning may feel overburdened or believe they lack the resources to care for the victim. Whatever the reason, one can only imagine the confusion and despair that the victim feels.

Statistics for older adult abandonment are slim. This is because many incidents go unreported or are hard to identify. Abandonment is sometimes used interchangeably with elder neglect. Elder neglect is failing to fulfill one's duties or obligations to an older adult.

Older Adult Abandonment vs. Older Adult Neglect

Neglect is a form of mistreatment and older adult abuse. Neglect occurs when caregivers, whether professionals or family members, fail to meet the needs of the older adult. It is common to see withholding of basic needs such as:

  • Medical care and medical treatment
  • Food
  • Basic home care
  • Social contact
  • Personal hygiene
  • Health care

Neglect puts an older adult in serious danger. It can be intentional or unintentional. You may also hear it called “passive neglect." Unintentional neglect occurs when the caregiver is unaware or in denial that an older person needs as much care as they do.

Neglect requires the caregiver to be around the victim. The caregiver or family member may still fulfill some responsibilities, so neglect can be hard to recognize. Abandonment is a total lack of contact with the victim and complete failure to fulfill any duties.

Elder Abandonment: State Law Basics

Every state has some form of older adult abandonment laws. There are variations in language and applicability.

California, for example, defines elder abandonment as the willful desertion of an older adult by someone caring for that person. In California, any person who cares for or has custody of any elderly person is subject to this provision.

But Delaware's abandonment law falls under "neglect." Delaware defines neglect as the purposeful abandonment of an impaired adult. But the law only applies to physically or mentally incapacitated or impaired older adults. In contrast, California's law applies to any elderly person.

Like Delaware, New York's abandonment law falls under "neglect." But New York law contains two categories of neglect: "active" and "passive." The difference depends on whether the neglect was willful.

Older Adult Abandonment: Federal Laws

The federal government also has laws to protect older adults from abandonment. The federal Elder Justice Act created several human service and social service agencies to help combat and coordinate the country's response to the growing issue of elder abuse. The law also requires healthcare providers and certain people at long-term care facilities to report crimes committed against elderly residents to law enforcement.

To prevent abuse and abandonment, it's important for older adults and those caring for them to know about their rights and responsibilities.

Wandering vs. Abandonment

Older adults facing dementia or other memory impairments can get lost or wander away from their homes. Wandering can be an accident unrelated to elder abuse or a crime. But abuse, neglect, and unmet needs can also trigger wandering.

How You Can Help: Spotting Elder Abandonment

An older adult who is alone and appears confused, lost, or frightened may be the victim of abandonment. Other signs of abandonment or neglect include malnourishment, dehydration, and poor hygiene.

If your loved one goes missing and you suspect a caretaker has abandoned them, call the police immediately. Then report it to your state's Adult Protective Services (APS) or your long-term care ombudsperson to investigate.

Getting Legal Help

Contact your local elder abuse agency if you or someone you know may be the victim of older adult abandonment.

If you care for an older adult and want to know more about your state's abandonment laws and the legal issues you could face, you should consult with a lawyer specializing in elder law.

If your loved one has recently been diagnosed with dementia or another disease that causes mental incapacity or impairment, you should consult an estate planning attorney immediately. An estate attorney can help set up a durable power of attorney so that your loved one can appoint someone to make healthcare decisions on their behalf if they become incapacitated. If your loved one is already mentally incapacitated, you should talk to your attorney about setting up a conservatorship and appointing a conservator.

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