What Is Elder Abuse?

Elder Abuse (also known as "elder mistreatment," "senior abuse," "abuse later in life," or "abuse of older adults) is a generalized term to describe a single or multiple intentional or negligent act(s) that cause harm, risk of harm, or distress to a vulnerable older adult. Elder abuse generally takes place in the residence of an older adult.

As we age, we become increasingly frail, less and less able to fight back against abuse or bullying from another. The elderly often do not think, hear, or see as well as they once did, which allows for exploitation of older adults.

Thousands upon thousands of elderly across the US are abused; often by those who are tasked to care for them. Caregivers may become frustrated with the gamut of mental and physical illnesses the elderly face.

Each year in the US, over half a million reports of elder abuse are reported - millions more cases go unreported.

Many elderly are abused in their homes, or in residential facilities, by those responsible for their care. If you suspect that an elderly person you know may be neglected or abused, if their caregiver appears to be overwhelmed: speak up.

Report any suspicions of elder abuse to Adult Protective Services.

What Are The Types of Elder Abuse?

Like other forms of abuse, there are many variations of elder abuse, each with their own set of signs. Some of the first warning signs that an elder is being abused are:

  • Changes in behavior or personality of the elder.
  • Tension and frequent arguments between the caregiver and the elderly person.

Physical Elder Abuse is the intentional use of force against an older person that leads to pain, impairment, or injury. Physical abuse of an elderly person can also include inappropriate confinement, misuse of medications, or the usage of restraints.

Warning Signs of Physical Elder Abuse:

  • Unexplained injuries like bruises, scars, or burns.
  • Broken bones, fractures, and dislocations not easily explained.
  • Discomfort when asked about injuries.
  • Rope (or other) burns from restraints on the wrists, arms or ankles.
  • Frequent trips to the ER that involve "accidental" drug overdoses.

Elder Neglect is the failure (intentionally or unintentionally) of a caretaker to provide food, shelter, healthcare or protection to an elderly person. Unintentional elder neglect can be caused by pure ignorance or denial that the elder needs as much care as he or she does. Elder neglect or elder abandonment comprises over half of the reported cases of elder abuse.

Signs of Elder Neglect:

  • Unexplained, unintentional weight loss
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Unsanitary, unsafe living conditions, such as no electricity, running water, or hoarding conditions
  • Untreated or mismanaged health problems, like bedsores
  • Appearing improperly (or inappropriately) dressed for the weather
  • Appearing to be unwashed or dirty

Emotional Elder Abuse is the act of causing mental pain, distress or anguish to an elder through verbal and non-verbal acts.

  1. Verbal Elder Abuse acts can include intimidation, threats, humiliation, and scapegoating.
  2. Non-Verbal Elder Abuse acts include isolating the elderly person from friends, terrorizing or ignoring the elder.

Signs of Emotional Elder Abuse:

  • Seeing a caregiver treat the elder in a threatening, terrorizing or demeaning way.
  • Dementia-like behavior from the elder, including mumbling, thumb-sucking, and rocking back and forth.

Sexual Abuse of an Elder includes any non-consensual sex act, including being forced to watch pornography.

Signs of Sexual Abuse of an Elder:

  • Genital bruising
  • Unexplained STIs, vaginal or anal bleeding
  • Stained or torn undergarments
  • Failure to take medication as prescribed

Financial Exploitation of an Elder is the misuse, illegal taking, or concealment of property, assets, or money of an elder to benefit another.

Signs of Financial Exploitation:

  • Large withdrawals
  • Money or items suddenly missing from the home
  • Suspicious financial activity unable to be performed by the elder (bedridden people can't hit up the ATM)
  • Bizarre changes in wills, power of attorney, titles and policy
  • Abrupt changes in financial status
  • Unpaid bills, lack of medical care, even though the elder has the money
  • Unnecessary services, bills and subscriptions

Risk Factors for Elder Abuse:

There are two sets of risk factors for elder abuse. The elder him or herself and the caretaker of the elder.

Risk Factors of Elder Abuse For Caretakers:

  • Depression
  • Lack of other support from friends or family
  • Caregiver burnout
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Substance use and abuse
  • Belief that the job of caring for an elderly relative is an unrewarding burden

Read more about caregivers.

Elders Who May Be At Greater Risk For Abuse:

How Do I Report Elder Abuse If I'm Being Abused?

If you are an elder and you are being abused, tell at least one person. Your doctor, a family member you trust or a friend. No one deserves to be abused.

Call the Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 so they can find a local agency to help you. 

How To Report Elder Abuse:

If you're a concerned neighbor, friend or family member who suspects that an elder is being abused, there are methods to go about reporting elder abuse. Here are some tips for reporting elder abuse:

Be as specific as possible when reporting elder abuse. You don't have to have solid evidence of the abuse to report your suspicions, as many cases of elder abuse are subtle or happen so slowly that it's hard to really pinpoint why you suspect the elder is being abused.

Know that, like any other person, the elder has all rights to refuse your help and services available to him or her. Unless the elder cannot make the decision to stay with an abusive caregiver due to diminished mental capacity, he or she can refuse help.

Continue to report your suspicions. Keep a watchful eye on the situation and if you have more suspicions, don't hesitate to report them to the proper authorities.

How Can I Prevent Elder Abuse?

Report any suspected abuse, neglect, mistreatment, or exploitation immediately.

Keep in contact with elderly relatives, neighbors and friends. Isolation can increase the risk of elder abuse.

Plan for your own future. Draw up a living will, power of attorney with the help of someone you trust.

Know your rights.

The most effective measure against elder abuse is awareness, education, knowing both the warning signs of elder abuse, and situations that may lead to elder abuse.

To Avoid Caregiver Burnout and Elder Abuse:

If you are the caretaker of an elderly relative, please reach out to family and friends. There is no shame in asking for help in taking care of your elderly relative. Being a caretaker is incredibly stressful and demanding. You don't have to do it alone.

Visit Caretaker.org to find a list of caretakers by state.

Find a support group. Hearing others talk about the same situations you deal with can provide relief, form a network support and information. Caregiver.com has a regional listing of support groups.

Remember that caregiving is a stressful job. Give yourself permission to do one nice thing for yourself every single day, even when you don’t feel like it.

Take breaks.

If you are feeling depressed, or are experiencing other signs of depression , please seek help. Depression can increase the risk for elder abuse.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Advanced Directives (Living Will, Power of Attorney, Trusts)


Domestic Abuse

Economic Abuse

Emotional Abuse

Sexual Abuse

Additional Resources for Elder Abuse Prevention and Support:

Visit National Center on Elder Abuse for a directory of state hotlines to direct you to local services to help the elderly.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)

ElderCare Locator 1.800.677.1116 a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging that will connect you to local services for older adults and their families

National Committee For The Prevention of Elder Abuse: non-profit association of researchers, practitioners, educators, and advocates dedicated to protecting the safety, security, and dignity of America's most vulnerable citizens.

Caregiver Resources: Lists of local services, programs, and resources are available for persons who help an older person with the activities of daily living, health care, financial matters, guidance, companionship and social interaction.

The Directory of Crime Victim Services is a Web-enabled, online resource sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). The directory is designed to help service providers and individuals locate victim services in the United States and other countries. Search by location, type of victimization, service needed, or agency type.

Nursing Home Abuse Center - site dedicated to providing reports of nursing home abuse.