Caregiver Dilemma: What to Do if the Police Are Called

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You see flashing lights. The doorbell rings.

It’s the police.

Families have misunderstandings. Conflicts escalate and sometimes the situation takes an ugly turn that leads to verbal or physical violence. Last week, Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street was charged with domestic violence in connection with a Dec. 23 altercation with her 76-year-old father. Prosecutors say she pushed her father down the stairs and locked him in a basement.

Street is currently caring for both her aging parents. She told police dispatchers that she “put” her father down the stairs after he pulled her hair and scratched her face, and that she was acting in the best interests of her family. Street has declined a plea deal and her case will be heard in court.

The Elder Abuse Epidemic

Elder abuse is a serious, widespread crime in the United States that is on the rise, due in part to the growing elderly population. And despite growing awareness of the issue, The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) reports that an overwhelming number of cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation go undetected and untreated each year. One NCEA study estimated that for every case of elder abuse reported, five more go unreported. Don’t assume that abuse, neglect or exploitation can’t happen to you or a senior you care about. Both paid caregiver and family caregivers who abuse their elderly loved ones face serious legal consequences.

In other cases, well-meaning caregivers may find themselves in a situation where family issues, hot tempers, and diseases such as dementia can spiral out of control and lead to a threatening situation. Dementia can even affect a person’s ability to recognize abuse and defend themselves, so be aware of anyone who cares for your aging loved one and know the signs of elder abuse.

What should you do if you (or someone else) calls law enforcement?

“Be proactive and have a plan. Maybe dad’s got a temper or your mother accuses someone of something they didn’t do. You know your loved one and you know their range, but people can surprise you. It’s best to prepared,” states retired Georgia State Trooper Kimberly Stevens. She reminds us, “Police act in the role of peace officers. Their mission is to maintain peace.”

It’s important for caregivers to view the situation as an officer would. Law enforcement personnel are trained to look for two, possibly [word missing here] people: the victim and the suspect. Their goal is to quickly identify these two individuals and find any witness who may be able to shed further insight on the situation.

The following points can help you react appropriately.

  1. Be calm.
    Whether you called 911 or someone else did, take just a few seconds to collect yourself. Stop yelling (if you were), breathe and gather your thoughts. The police will want someone to explain the situation. Let that person be you.

  2. Be clear.
    Details are important, but don’t bog the police down with unnecessary details. If possible, separate yourself from anyone who is still upset or who might interrupt. Offer helpful information that will help explain the situation—but mind your words. You are giving a statement and your words are considered evidence.

  3. Be compliant.
    The police are there to help the situation, but they have to do their job and follow the law. The police are required to make the final decision. After they assess the situation they cannot legally leave if they feel anyone is in danger. If there’s been an assault call, they are required to respond.

What happens if the parties involved disagree about what happened?

The police look for evidence. They will speak to witnesses who heard or saw the situation. They examine individuals for red marks, welts, or abrasions on the body, destroyed items in the home other signs of violence. They will also take in account if law enforcement has been called before or if anyone has a record. In most states, if there are signs of assault the police are required to take someone into custody.

What Should You Do If You Are Arrested?

  1. Don’t resist.
    You might get tased or worse, and if you resist you will be arrested. You’re adding charges to your situation and proving you can’t control your temper.

  2. Mind your words.
    Stevens offers smart advice: “You have the right to remain silent. Sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment and although they may not mean what they say it can be taken as a statement of admission or threat.”

Even if you’re in a situation where things got out of hand and the police must be called, look at it as an opportunity to be honest about the stress you’re under. It may be time to admit that you can’t do it all, and you really can’t do it alone. Your loved one may need more (or different) care than you can offer.

What should you do if you know you need help with care?

  • Ask for and receive support.
  • Use reliable online sources, such as, to search for options
  • Seek out your family, your church, and close friends for guidance and assistance.

Caring for an aging loved one isn’t always easy, but we can turn a difficult situation around. “Every family has their ups and downs, but don’t let the downs be the catalyst for your future,” Stevens reminds us all.

National Resources for Families