Elder abuse is when an older person is harmed or put at serious risk of harm. It includes many types of abuse, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. It also includes neglect and taking advantage of an older person.
Elder abuse is a very serious problem in the United States. Some older adults may be at greater risk of abuse because they live alone or don’t get out much. Also, some older adults are easily confused, which also puts them at risk. Abuse can occur in your home, in a nursing home, or in public.
Caregivers who are unable to cope with the demands of caring for an older adult might release some of this stress by taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable, such as an older adult.
Abusers may be:
- Professional caregivers
If you or someone you know has been the victim of elder abuse, seek help from family, friends, or community organizations. Reach out for support or counseling. Talk to a doctor or other health care professional, especially if you have been physically hurt.
Types and signs of elder abuse
Elder abuse comes in many forms. The chart below explains the different types and signs of elder abuse.
Physical abuse – Hitting, slapping, beating, pushing, shoving, kicking, pinching, and burning. Signs include:
- Bruises, black eyes
- Marks on the body like welts, cuts, and open wounds
- Sprains, dislocations (like a shoulder), or broken bones
- Injuries that are healing but were never treated
- Rope marks or burns on hands and feet (could mean an elder has been tied up or restrained)
- Broken eyeglasses or frames
- A sudden change in behavior
- Not wanting to be alone with the caregiver
- Caregiver not letting anyone visit the elder alone
- Running out of prescription medicine too quickly or having prescription medicine that looks like it is not being taken like it should be (bottle too full)
- The elder tells you he or she is being physically hurt
Emotional or psychological abuse – Verbal assaults, threats, intimidation, harassment, isolating the elder from regular activities, family, and friends. Signs include:
- Being in an upset or agitated state
- Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to talk or interact with anyone
- Unusual behavior like rocking, biting, or sucking (usually thought to be symptoms of dementia)
- The elder person tells you he or she is being mistreated
Sexual assault and abuse – Any sexual contact that is not agreed to by the elder like unwanted touching and all types of sexual assault. Signs Include:
- Bruises on or around the breasts or genitals
- Unexplained sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or vaginal or anal bleeding
- Torn, stained, or bloody underwear
- The elder person tells you he or she is sexually assaulted or raped
Neglect – Not taking proper care of an elder, including physical care (food, clothing, shelter, medicine, personal hygiene) and financial care (not paying for living arrangements, care, and other bills). Signs include:
- Poor hygiene, dehydration, malnutrition, bed sores that aren’t being treated (if bedridden)
- Health problems that aren’t being treated
- Unsafe living conditions (no heat, electricity or water, faulty wiring)
- Poor living conditions (dirt, fleas, soiled bedding, clothes, and bedding smelling like urine/feces, improper clothing, lice on the elder)
- The elder person tells you he or she is being neglected
Nursing home abuse
Most elder abuse occurs at home. However, a lot of abuse occurs in long-term care facilities, such as in nursing homes, out of sight of the general public.
Nursing home abuse can take any form:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Financial exploitation
The National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center provides advocates who can help choose a safe nursing home and resolve elder abuse complaints in a long-term care facility.
Steps to Prevention of Elder Abuse
- Be socially active and avoid spending too much time alone. Being cut off from other people can put you at a higher risk of abuse. Keep in touch with family and friends.
- If you are not happy with the care you are getting in your home, speak up. You have a right to change. This applies to all caregivers — even family.
- If you live in a long-term care facility and are not happy with your care, speak up. If you do not have family members who can help, contact your state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman The ombudsman’s purpose is to be your advocate and to help you.
- Plan for your own financial future with a trusted person or persons. Make sure that your finances are in order. It’s also important to tell family, caregivers, and doctors your health care wishes. For more information on financial and other future planning, see Planning your future.
What family members can do? Family members and friends who are not caregivers of the older adult can help to prevent abuse by:
- Watching for warning signs that might signal abuse (bruising, soreness, agitation, fear, refusal to speak).
- Making sure that the older adult is eating properly and taking required medications. A weakened older adult may not be able to think clearly about the care being given.
- Gaining trust so that the older adult allows you more oversight in financial and caretaking matters.
- Scanning bank accounts and credit card statements for unauthorized transactions.
- Calling and visiting as often as you are able. Keep in contact.
Many states have 24-hour toll-free numbers for receiving confidential reports of abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse can help you find services in the state where the older person lives. For help with locating elder care services, contact Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.
Other publications and websites
- Age Page: Crime and Older People – This fact sheet discusses fraud, identity theft, and elder abuse and explains what you can do to protect yourself from these crimes.
- Age Page: Elder Abuse – This fact sheet discusses the kinds of elder abuse and provides resources for getting help.
- Domestic Violence: Older Women Can Be Victims Too – This fact sheet lists some of the warning signs of domestic abuse that occurs later in life.
- Elder Abuse and Neglect: In Search of Solutions (Copyright © American Psychological Association) – This online publication provides information on the signs of elder abuse. It explains why elder abuse may occur, ways to prevent it, and what to do if elder abuse is suspected. A list of resources is also provided at the end of the publication.
- Help for Victims and Vulnerable Persons (Copyright © National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse) – This publication links to information about where to find help if you or someone you know is a victim of elder abuse.
- State Directory of Helplines, Hotlines and Elder Abuse Prevention Resources (Copyright © National Center on Elder Abuse) – This publication lists elder abuse hotlines by state.
- What Is Elder Abuse? – This publication gives information on the prevalence of elder abuse, what types of abuse are common, and what the Administration on Aging is doing to combat this problem.
Connect with other organizations
- Administration on Aging, HHS
- Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Center on Elder Abuse, AOA, HHS
- National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life
- National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
- National Senior Citizens Law Center
- Women’s Health, (2010), “Elder Abuse.” Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/aging/safety-abuse/elder-abuse.html
- Office on Women’s Health in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services