What Is Elder Abuse?

In this article...
  • For older adults and their families, elder abuse and neglect are serious concerns. Keep reading to learn about the types of elder abuse and how to prevent them.
Holding Hands Providing Comfort

Elder abuse is a serious concern in the United States and around the globe. In 2018, the World Health Organization reported that nearly 17% of older people (60 and older) were subjected to elder abuse in community settings during the previous year.

Seniors and their families should familiarize themselves with the main types of abuse and take steps to prevent each one.

Physical Abuse

Physical elder abuse is defined as injury or harm against an older adult carried out with the intent to cause physical harm or mental anguish. Examples include aggressive handling of an older person, punching, slapping, kicking, biting and pulling too hard on a senior's limbs. In some cases, a caregiver commits sexual abuse, which involves behaviors such as unwanted touching and sexual assault. This type of abuse may even take the form of domestic violence, which is behavior used to maintain power and control over another person.

These signs of elder abuse may indicate that a loved one has been abused by a caregiver:

  • Unexplained bruises or scars
  • Broken bones
  • Sprains
  • Unexplained skin wounds
  • Multiple injuries within a short time frame
  • Repeated injuries at the same site (e.g. repeated cuts in the same part of the arm)

Psychological Abuse

Psychological elder abuse, also known as emotional abuse, is typically defined as the intentional infliction of pain, distress or mental anguish. Examples include yelling in anger, humiliating an older adult, behaving in an intimidating manner and making threats against an older adult. Psychological abusers may also engage in social isolation, which involves keeping seniors away from their friends and family members.

Signs of this type of abuse include fearful behavior, increased agitation, regression, mood swings, depression and sudden changes in behavior when spending time with a particular person. Regression may take the form of finger sucking or rocking back and forth.

Financial Abuse

Financial elder abuse involves the exploitation of seniors by relatives, friends, intimate partners, paid caregivers or total strangers. Older adults have a higher risk of financial exploitation because they may not be able to manage their own affairs. When a senior gives an adult child, sibling or other relative the power to manage his or her finances, it's possible for the designated agent to abuse that trust by making financial decisions that aren't in the senior's best interests.

Relatives and other trusted individuals may use their access to an older adult to steal checks and credit cards, gain access to financial accounts or engage in other activities that drain a senior's bank accounts or impair their ability to qualify for new lines of credit. Health care workers may even exploit their patients by committing identity theft or convincing older adults to adjust their estate plans.

If financial exploitation is a concern, watch out for these signs:

  • You find ATM receipts or loan documents, but the older adult doesn't remember making any withdrawals or opening new lines of credit.
  • The older adult relies exclusively on one person for help managing his or her financial affairs.
  • A relative or caregiver has a sudden change in spending habits that can't be explained by a new job or another legitimate source of money.
  • Bank statements don't arrive on time — or at all.
  • The senior receives past-due bills or an eviction notice even though there should be enough money available to pay ordinary living expenses.
  • You notice many ATM withdrawals from the senior's account, but the senior is housebound and would not have been able to make all those transactions.
  • Money and other assets are missing from the senior's home.
  • The older adult receives substandard medical care even though he or she should have enough money to pay for quality care.


Neglect occurs when caregivers ignore their duty to provide adequate care to an elder person. Neglectful caregivers may refuse to provide nutritious meals, medications, shelter, clean clothing or required medical care. In a long-term care setting, neglect may take the form of failing to help seniors with activities of daily living, not providing enough opportunities for social interaction to residents, ignoring residents' hydration needs and failing to assist residents with their toileting needs when asked to do so.

The following signs may indicate that neglect is taking place:

  • The older adult has bad breath or other indicators of poor hygiene.
  • When you visit with the person, you notice that his or her clothing isn't clean.
  • The senior has lost a lot of weight with no medical explanation for the loss.
  • The older adult shows signs of dehydration, such as dry skin or noticeable confusion.
  • The senior's living conditions have deteriorated significantly.
  • You notice bed sores on the senior's skin. Bed sores develop when someone sits or lies in the same position for a long time, so their presence may indicate that the person isn't being turned often enough.

Preventing Elder Abuse

It's not possible to prevent all cases of elder abuse, but there are several things you can do to reduce the risk.

  • If your loved one is in a nursing home, visit regularly. Abusive staff members often target residents who don't receive visitors, as it's easier to hide abuse when outsiders won't see its effects.
  • Advise older loved ones to lock up their cash, credit cards and identity documents to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Visit your loved one on different days of the week and at different times each day. When you arrive unexpectedly, you have a better chance of catching an abuser in the act or spotting signs of past abuse.
  • Make sure your loved one has plenty of opportunities to socialize with other people.

If you notice any signs of abuse or neglect, report your concerns to the agency responsible for adult protective services in your state. Depending on your state laws, you may be able to have criminal charges filed against the perpetrator. If the abuse occurred in a long-term care facility, you should also contact an attorney to determine if it would be appropriate to file a civil suit.