What is elder abuse and neglect?
Elder abuse includes physical, emotional, or sexual harm inflicted upon an older adult, their financial exploitation, or neglect of their welfare by people who are directly responsible for their care. In the U.S. alone, more than half a million reports of elder abuse reach authorities every year, and millions more cases go unreported.
As older adults become more physically frail, they’re less able to take care of themselves, stand up to bullying, or fight back if attacked. Mental or physical ailments can make them more trying companions for those who live with them. And they may not see or hear as well or think as clearly as they used to, leaving openings for unscrupulous people to take advantage of them.
Elder abuse tends to take place where the senior lives: where their abusers are often adult children, other family members such as grandchildren, or a spouse or partner. Elder abuse can also occur in institutional settings, especially long-term care facilities.
A portrait of elder abuse
There’s an elderly neighbor you’ve chatted with at civic meetings and block parties for years. When you see her coming to get her mail as you walk up the street, you slow down and greet her at the mailbox. She says hello but seems wary, as if she doesn’t quite recognize you. You ask her about a nasty bruise on her forearm. Oh, just an accident, she explains; the car door closed on it. She says goodbye quickly and returns to the house. Something isn’t quite right about her. You think about the bruise, her skittish behavior. Well, she’s getting pretty old, you think; maybe her mind is getting fuzzy. But there’s something else – something isn’t right.
Types of elder abuse
Abuse of elders takes many different forms, some involving intimidation or threats against the elderly, some involving neglect, and others involving financial trickery. The most common are:
Physical elder abuse – The non-accidental use of force against an elderly person that results in physical pain, injury, or impairment. Such abuse includes not only physical assaults such as hitting or shoving but the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints, or confinement.
Emotional elder abuse – The treatment of an older adult in ways that cause emotional or psychological pain or distress, including:
Sexual elder abuse – Contact with an elderly person without their consent. Such contact can involve physical sex acts, but activities such as showing an elderly person pornographic material, forcing the person to watch sex acts, or forcing the elder to undress are also considered sexual elder abuse
Elder neglect – Failure to fulfill a caretaking obligation. This constitutes more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse. It can be intentional or unintentional, based on factors such as ignorance or denial that an elderly charge needs as much care as they do.
Financial exploitation – The unauthorized use of an elderly person's funds or property, either by a caregiver or an outside scam artist. An unscrupulous caregiver might:
Typical scams that target elders include:
Healthcare fraud and abuse – Carried out by unethical doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, and other professional care providers. This can include:
One of the most common forms of elder abuse encountered by geriatric care managers is self-neglect. Physical or mental impairment or diminished capacity can mean that an older adult is no longer able to perform essential self-care. They may lack basic personal hygiene, appear dehydrated, malnourished, or underweight, live in increasingly unsanitary or dirty conditions, and be unable to pay bills or properly manage their medications.
Self-neglect can be a sign of depression, grief, dementia, or other medical problem, and in many cases, the older person will refuse to seek assistance. They may be in denial, feel ashamed about needing help, or worried about losing their independence.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Signs of elder abuse can be difficult to recognize or mistaken for symptoms of dementia or the elderly person’s frailty – or caregivers may explain them to you that way. In fact, many of the signs and symptoms of elder abuse do overlap with symptoms of mental deterioration, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them on the caregiver’s say-so.
Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person or changes in the personality or behavior in the elder can be broad signals of elder abuse. If you suspect abuse, but aren't sure, you can look for clusters of the following warning signs.
Physical abuse warning signs:
Emotional abuse warning signs:
Sexual abuse warning signs:
Elder neglect or self-neglect warning signs:
Financial exploitation warning signs:
Healthcare fraud or abuse warning signs:
Risk factors for elder abuse
In addition to the caregiver’s inability to manage stress, other risk factors for elder abuse include:
Even caregivers in institutional settings can experience stress at levels that lead to elder abuse. Nursing home staff may be prone to elder abuse if they lack training, have too many responsibilities, are unsuited to caregiving, or work under poor conditions.
Preventing elder abuse and neglect
If you’re a caregiver to an elderly person and feel you are in danger of hurting or neglecting them, there is help and support available. Perhaps you’re having trouble controlling your anger and find yourself screaming louder and louder or lashing out at the person in your care? Or other people have expressed concern at your behavior or the tension between the two of you? Or maybe you simply feel emotionally disconnected or overwhelmed by the daily needs of the elderly person in your care? Recognizing that you have a problem is the biggest step to getting help and preventing abuse.
As a caregiver, the following steps can help you prevent elder abuse or neglect:
If you’re a concerned friend or family member, the following can also help to prevent abuse of an elderly person.
How to protect yourself from abuse as an elder
Reporting elder abuse
If you are an elder who is being abused, neglected, or exploited, tell at least one person. Tell your doctor, a friend, or a family member whom you trust. Or call one of the helplines listed below. If you see an older adult being abused or neglected, don’t hesitate to report the situation. And if you see future incidences of abuse, continue to call and report them. Each elder abuse report is a snapshot of what is going on. The more information that you can provide, the better the chance the elder has to get the level of care they need. Older adults can be increasingly isolated from society and, with no work to attend, it can be easy for abuse cases to go unnoticed for long periods.
Many seniors don't report the abuse they face even if they’re able. Some fear retaliation from the abuser, while others view having an abusive caretaker as better than having no caretaker and being forced to move out of their own home. When the caregivers are their children, they may be ashamed that their children are behaving abusively or blame themselves: “If I’d been a better parent when they were younger, this wouldn’t be happening.” Or they just may not want children they love to get into trouble with the law. In any situation of elder abuse, it can be a real challenge to respect an older adult’s right to autonomy while at the same time making sure they are properly cared for.
In the case of an elder being abused by a primary caregiver, such as an adult child:
In the case of self-neglect:
Where to turn for help
If an elderly person needs immediate assistance, call 911 or your country’s emergency service.
In the U.S., the first agency to respond to a report of elderly abuse is usually Adult Protective Services (APS). Its role is to investigate abuse cases, intervene, and offer services and advice, although the power and scope of APS varies from state to state. You can consult the State Directory of Helplines, Hotlines, and Elder Abuse Prevention Resources (http://local-nursing-homes.com/nursing-homes-abuse) or contact an elder abuse helpline. (/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/senior-housing.htm)
Senior Housing: (/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/senior-housing.htm) Guide to Housing Options HelpGuide.org
© Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. The content of this reprint is for informational purposes only and NOT a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Visit https://www.helpguide.org/ for the complete article which includes references, related articles and active links.
Elder abuse helplines
• US: 1-800-677-1116 (Eldercare Locator (http://www.eldercare.gov/Eldercare.NET/Public/Index.aspx)).
• UK: 080 8808 8141 (Action on Elder Abuse (http://www.elderabuse.org.uk/)).
• Australia: 1300 651 192 (Elder Abuse Prevention Unit (http://www.eapu.com.au/)).
• South Africa: 0800 333 231 (Age In Action (http://www.age-in-action.co.za/)).
• Canada: 310 1818 or visit Alberta Elder Abuse (http://www.albertaelderabuse.ca/) for links to local resources.
Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Joanna Saisan, MSW, and Jeanne Segal,
Ph.D. Last updated: April 2018.
Get all the help you need now for free! CLICK HERE
Spotting the Warning Signs and Getting Help
Many elderly adults are abused in their own homes, in relatives’ homes, and even in facilities responsible for their care. If you suspect that an elderly person is at risk from a neglectful or overwhelmed caregiver, or being preyed upon financially, it’s important to speak up. Everyone deserves to live in safety, with dignity and respect. Learn about the warning signs of elder abuse, what the risk factors are, and how you can prevent and
report the problem.