People may feel ashamed or afraid to talk about abuse, including the verbal kind, so the researchers from Northeastern University asked their older subjects to respond to questions by touching a computer screen. It gave them more privacy.

They instructed these seniors to think about the person who helped them most with their care – it could be a family member or a paid helper – then asked, “How often in the past year did someone insult or swear at you?” and “How often did someone stomp out of the room or house?” and “How often did someone threaten to hit or throw something at you?” The questions came from a much-used scale that measures conflict.

This study, which involved 142 older patients at a large academic medical center in New York, did not ask people to describe the kind of verbal mistreatment they had experienced from their caregivers. But Terry Fulmer, lead author of the research and dean of Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, in Boston, has explored elder abuse for 20 years and has heard the most frequent complaints many times:

“She yells at me.”

“He swears at me all the time.”

“She tells me that if I keep acting like this, she’ll put me in a nursing home.”

The participants in Dr. Fulmer’s study were ambulatory older people who lived in the community and who did not have dementia, which would lead you to think their caregivers might face somewhat less stress than those whose elders are bedridden or demented.