June 15 marks the eighth World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, a time for us to build a better understanding of elder abuse and effective ways to respond. Elder abuse has no boundaries. On-Island and around the globe, the experience of elder abuse transcends communities, cultures and income levels. The term elder abuse refers to intentional or negligent acts that cause harm to those the law recognizes as vulnerable elders Massachusetts law defines an elder as a person age 60 and over. The law requires people in certain professions to report suspected elder abuse to public authorities. Every one of us, however, can report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of an elder. Four out of five cases, experts estimate, are either unreported or undiscovered until the injuries are beyond healing or the life savings depleted.

Elder abuse has many facets, among them the following few. Physical abuse can be indicated by unexplained fractures, bruises, welts, and burns. Emotional abuse may be an issue when a caregiver or family member isolates an elder from neighbors, inquirers, and other family. Neglect may be a factor when a person has inadequate basic hygiene, food, household utilities or is bedridden and confined without assistance. Financial exploitation may be the reason that an elder has neither access to his or her savings nor the money to pay the bills.

The signs may be much more subtle, and victims of elder abuse may fear that talking to anyone about the problems will result in worse, such as having to move away from their home or shame the family by making charges against a relative. Some fear they will not be believed because they are “old and forgetful” or the facts are so disturbing. An elder may try to minimize your observations or change the conversation. Frequently, the best we can do is begin to counteract those fears by saying, “I’d like to help.”

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was developed and launched on June 15, 2006 by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. The first event was held at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Eight years later annual public awareness and take-action events are planned on many continents and countries, in U.S. state capitols, regional centers and small towns.

In the U.S., federal leadership is highlighting elder protection throughout 2013. The Administration on Aging, an agency of the Administration for Community Living, is sponsoring the Year of Elder Abuse Prevention to encourage national, state and local organizations to protect seniors and raise awareness about elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Anyone who experiences, witnesses or suspects elder abuse, neglect or exploitation should contact Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands at 1-800-244-4630 during business hours, or at their hotline number, 1-800-922-2275.

A victim or anyone who witnesses or suspects a crime should make an immediate report to their local police department. The Cape and Islands district attorney’s office has a program for senior victims in Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties. The telephone number is 508-362-8113.

Iris C. Freeman is the associate director of the Elder Justice & Policy Center at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., and a member of the board at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. She is a part-time resident of Edgartown.