Safeguarding people affected by dementia during coronavirus

As many people with dementia are isolated and support services remain closed, it is more vital than ever to ensure that they are safe from abuse or neglect. Everyone has a responsibility to be vigilant and protect the rights of people affected by the condition to be free from harm.

The purpose of safeguarding is to protect people and ensure that everyone can live in safety, free from abuse and neglect. To achieve this, safeguarding is everyone’s business and so we all have a part to play. We have general advice where you can read more about how safeguarding works to protect all individuals, indicators of abuse and who to contact if you are concerned.

Whether you are a relative, friend or neighbour; professional or non-professional carer or a health or social care worker, you can all identify the signs of abuse or neglect and act accordingly.

What are the different forms of abuse?

Abuse comes in many different forms, including:

  • financial abuse
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • domestic violence
  • psychological or emotional abuse.

Both neglect and self-neglect are also types of abuse.

How to spot the different signs of abuse

The wide-ranging types of abuse mean that there are numerous signs to look out for.

Abuse is not just shown by bruises or things we can see. It is also about listening carefully to someone and noticing clues. It’s keeping a particular eye on changes to someone over time, and looking at their whole situation to see how they are living.

Some signs may be because of someone’s health, but they might also suggest abuse. 

Example of financial abuse of a person with dementia

Imagine a woman with dementia who usually wears different clothes and jewellery every day. Recently, she has only been wearing the same one or two outfits. This could be the woman’s dementia and the effect it is having on her; she may be happy wearing those couple of outfits. 

But it could instead be a sign of financial abuse – that she has no money left to buy clothes or her jewellery has been taken. It could even be a sign of neglect or self-neglect if she is not washing or changing clothes. 

Depending on your relationship to this person, it may be possible to ask her gently about it, or to check her wardrobe/home for signs. (If you are a professional carer you will need to ask for consent to do this.) If you still have concerns, then it should be reported to protect her.

Why people with dementia are vulnerable to abuse

Safeguarding is especially important to people affected by dementia because perpetrators often prey on those affected by the condition. They aim to exploit people who are older or with disabilities, mental or physical impairment or illness. 

People with dementia may be targeted as they may need assistance with some tasks. They could be less up to speed with technology and may be more welcoming of new social interaction and contact, and perhaps more trusting.

Staying vigilant to abuse during lockdown

The Coronavirus Act 2020 – the emergency UK law that came into force as a result of the pandemic – did not change safeguarding laws.

This means that if an incident of abuse or neglect is reported to a local authority, council or trust then they must look into it, investigate, and take any appropriate measures to act upon what is uncovered.

The current lockdown means we must be even more vigilant to potential safeguarding issues for people with dementia. 

Social isolation can increase the likelihood of abuse. At a time when we are all asked to stay at home more, people with dementia may be even more isolated and possibly alone. An increase in isolation can make people welcome more social contact without enough caution. 

Although there are many charities, organisations and volunteers who are making contact in order to help and support vulnerable people – including those with dementia – there are also people who are using the fact that people are more isolated as an opportunity for abuse. 

There is also potential for greater financial abuse to happen during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) has identified a number of reported incidents and potential opportunities for abuse, including: 

  • bogus healthcare workers claiming to be offering ‘home-testing’ for coronavirus
  • links to a fake daily newsletter for coronavirus updates
  • false insurance schemes and trading advice
  • fake government emails offering tax refunds.

The impact of coronavirus on our daily lives

Worryingly, there is real fear that domestic violence and physical abuse would escalate during the pandemic.

In fact, during April 2020, Alzheimer’s Society has seen an increase in safeguarding alerts relating to domestic violence. This increase highlights the need for vigilance. We all need to work together to prevent abuse and protect those this is happening to so that people can live safely and without fear.

The coronavirus has affected most aspects of life. It has affected the way that we do shopping, and we have seen many people affected by dementia increasingly anxious about not being able to get food delivered as online delivery slots are often very busy. 

We know that, with everyone told to stay at home more, and only make essential journeys, people aren’t visiting their relatives and friends as they used to.

As a result, relatives may not be able to do things that they previously did – such as look at the dates on food in the fridge, check that someone’s taking their medicine, or see that the home is being kept safe and clean. 

Limits to care and support in England

The Coronavirus Act 2020 also means that some local authorities in England can limit the care and support that they provide to people. Some local authorities have already done this, and this means that there are some people living with dementia who are already not getting regular support that they may have previously received.

This combination of circumstances presents a number of particular worries from a safeguarding angle. This is not only because of fraudsters who may use this situation as an opportunity, or the potential for domestic violence as people are at home for longer periods of time, but also for self-neglect. 

Lives are changing dramatically as a result of the pandemic. The factors mentioned above mixed in with the anxiety of the situation could create an environment for self-neglect to start. It’s important that we are aware and look out for this, and if needed to reach out for support.

6 ways to look out for safeguarding incidents during lockdown

Even during the pandemic, we can all do something to keep people affected by dementia safe.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Be extra vigilant. Look for potential signs of abuse, listen carefully when speaking to someone, and if on video calls, look out for signs too.
  2. Use technology if you can. You may be calling relatives and friends, but you may wish to consider video calls too.  This will give you the chance to see the person, and you can pick up on body language and see how the person is living too.
  3. Help reduce social isolation. Isolation is something perpetrators prey on, so – if you can - look at ways to reduce this for people affected by dementia, such as through calls and video chats. Arrange when people will call with other family members and friends to ensure that they are hearing from people often. Consider different activities the person can do. And get creative – you could use video calls to have dinner together, giving you the chance to ensure they are eating, or you could arrange quizzes or bingo or other group activities as well.
  4. Speak to the person about scams. Let them know about scams that are happening connected to the coronavirus so they know to look out for them.
  5. Ensure they know they can speak to someone about it. It's important for them to talk to someone if they are concerned or feel they may have been a victim of abuse. You may not be the best person. For example, if you are their son or daughter, they may feel that they should be protecting you – so may not want to tell you about what’s concerning them. Alternatively, if it is domestic abuse, they may not feel comfortable sharing this with you. Consider who they would want to speak to and ensure that they know they can.
  6. Make a report if you have a concern. If you are unsure, or feel like there may be abuse or self-neglect happening to someone you know, then report it – see below. This way, it can be looked into and the person can be protected.

We all have a role to play in protecting people affected by dementia from abuse, so consider what you can do to make a difference.

How do I report a safeguarding concern?

If someone is at immediate danger, you can call the appropriate emergency services.

When reporting non-urgent safeguarding concerns, unless it would increase the risk, we should always talk to the person to discuss your concerns and get their perspective then ask what they would like to do about it.

Read more about how to report a safeguarding concern.

If you are a front-line worker, you must always report concerns internally in line with your organisation’s safeguarding adults policy and procedure. You will have been trained in this.

Your manager, or other appropriate person, will contact the person to see what they would like to do and to seek consent to report to the relevant authorities. Consent to intervene or report can be overridden in certain circumstances such as if there is a risk to life, a risk to others or in cases of coercion or duress.

Safeguarding adults during coronavirus

Visit the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) website for futher advice.

Go to SCIE
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