What is elder abuse?
Your elderly neighbor
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.
As elders become more physically frail, they’re less able to stand up to bullying and or fight back if attacked. 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. Mental or physical ailments may make them more trying companions for the people who live with them.
Many seniors around the world are being abused: harmed in some substantial way often by people who are directly responsible for their care.
In the U.S. alone, more than half a million reports of abuse against elderly Americans reach authorities every year, and millions more cases go unreported.
Where does elder abuse take place?
Elder abuse tends to take place where the senior lives: most often in the home where abusers are apt to be adult children; other family members such as grandchildren; or spouses/partners of elders. Institutional settings, especially long-term care facilities, can also be sources of elder abuse.
The different 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 chicanery. The most common are defined below.
Physical elder abuse is 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.
In emotional or psychological senior abuse, people speak to or treat elderly persons in ways that cause emotional pain or distress.
Verbal forms of emotional elder abuse include
- Intimidation through yelling or threats
- Humiliation and ridicule
- Habitual blaming or scapegoating
Nonverbal psychological elder abuse can take the form of
- Ignoring the elderly person
- Isolating an elder from friends or activities
- Terrorizing or menacing the elderly person
Sexual elder abuse is contact with an elderly person without the elder’s 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.
Neglect or abandonment by caregivers
Elder neglect, failure to fulfill a caretaking obligation, constitutes more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse. It can be active (intentional) or passive (unintentional, based on factors such as ignorance or denial that an elderly charge needs as much care as he or she does).
This involves unauthorized use of an elderly person’s funds or property, either by a caregiver or an outside scam artist.
An unscrupulous caregiver might
- Misuse an elder’s personal checks, credit cards, or accounts
- Steal cash, income checks, or household goods
- Forge the elder’s signature
- Engage in identity theft
Typical rackets that target elders include
- Announcements of a “prize” that the elderly person has won but must pay money to claim
- Phony charities
- Investment fraud
Healthcare fraud and abuse
Carried out by unethical doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, and other professional care providers, examples of healthcare fraud and abuse regarding elders include
- Not providing healthcare, but charging for it
- Overcharging or double-billing for medical care or services
- Getting kickbacks for referrals to other providers or for prescribing certain drugs
- Overmedicating or undermedicating
- Recommending fraudulent remedies for illnesses or other medical conditions
- Medicaid fraud
Signs and symptoms of elder abuse
At first, you might not recognize or take seriously signs of elder abuse. They may appear to be symptoms of dementia or signs of 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.
General signs of abuse
The following are warning signs of some kind of elder abuse:
- Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person
- Changes in personality or behavior in the elder
If you suspect elderly abuse, but aren't sure, look for clusters of the following physical and behavioral signs.
- Unexplained signs of injury such as bruises, welts, or scars, especially if they appear symmetrically on two side of the body
- Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations
- Report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should)
- Broken eyeglasses or frames
- Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists
- Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone
In addition to the general signs above, indications of emotional elder abuse include:
- Threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior that you witness
- Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself
- Bruises around breasts or genitals
- Unexplained venereal disease or genital infections
- Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
- Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing
Neglect by caregivers or self-neglect
- Unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration
- Untreated physical problems, such as bed sores
- Unsanitary living conditions: dirt, bugs, soiled bedding and clothes
- Being left dirty or unbathed
- Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather
- Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring, other fire hazards)
- Desertion of the elder at a public place
- Significant withdrawals from the elder’s accounts
- Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition
- Items or cash missing from the senior’s household
- Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies
- Addition of names to the senior’s signature card
- Unpaid bills or lack of medical care, although the elder has enough money to pay for them
- Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden
- Unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions
Healthcare fraud and abuse
- Duplicate billings for the same medical service or device
- Evidence of overmedication or undermedication
- Evidence of inadequate care when bills are paid in full
- Problems with the care facility: poorly trained, poorly paid, or insufficient staff; crowding; inadequate responses to questions about care
Risk factors for elder abuse
It’s difficult to take care of a senior when he or she has many different needs, and it’s difficult to be elderly when age brings with it infirmities and dependence. Both the demands of caregiving and the needs of the elder can create situations in which abuse is more likely to occur.
Risk factors among caregivers
Many nonprofessional caregivers — spouses, adult children, other relatives and friends — find taking care of an elder to be satisfying and enriching. But the responsibilities and demands of elder caregiving, which escalate as the elder’s condition deteriorates, can also be extremely stressful. The stress of elder care can lead to mental and physical health problems that make caregivers burned out, impatient, and unable to keep from lashing out against elders in their care.
Among caregivers, significant risk factors for elder abuse are:
- Inability to cope with stress (lack of resilience)
- Depression, which is common among caregivers
- Lack of support from other potential caregivers
- The caregiver’s perception that taking care of the elder is burdensome and without psychological reward
- Substance abuse
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.
The elder’s condition and history
Several factors concerning elders themselves, while they don’t excuse abuse, influence whether they are at greater risk for abuse:
- The intensity of an elderly person’s illness or dementia
- Social isolation; i.e., the elder and caregiver are alone together almost all the time
- The elder’s role, at an earlier time, as an abusive parent or spouse
- A history of domestic violence in the home
- The elder’s own tendency toward verbal or physical aggression
In many cases, elder abuse, though real, is unintentional. Caregivers pushed beyond their capabilities or psychological resources may not mean to yell at, strike, or ignore the needs of the elders in their care.
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. Other people care and can help you.
And if you see an older adult being abused or neglected, don’t hesitate to report the situation. Don’t assume that someone else will take care of it or that the person being abused is capable of getting help if he or she really needs it.
Many seniors don't report the abuse they face even if they’re able. Some fear retaliation from the abuser, while others believe that if they turn in their abusers, no one else will take care of them. 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.
How do I report elder abuse?
Reporting elder abuse
As difficult as reporting elder abuse can be, it’s important for you to stand up for an older adult in need. Learn how to communicate effectively in different situations and put a stop to elder abuse and neglect. Read Reporting Elder Abuse
Every state in the U.S. has at least one toll-free elder abuse hotline or helpline for reporting elder abuse in the home, in the community, or in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. For help in your area, see the resources and references at the end of this article or talk to your local hospital or a trusted doctor or therapist.
The first agency to respond to a report of elderly abuse, in most states, is Adult Protective Services (APS). Its role is to investigate abuse cases, intervene, and offer services and advice. Again, the power and scope of APS varies from state to state.
Preventing elder abuse and neglect
We can help reduce the incidence of elder abuse, but it’ll take more effort than we’re making now. Preventing elder abuse means doing three things:
- Listening to seniors and their caregivers
- Intervening when you suspect elder abuse
- Educating others about how to recognize and report elder abuse
What you can do as a caregiver to prevent elder abuse
If you’re overwhelmed by the demands of caring for an elder, do the following:
- Request help, from friends, relatives, or local respite care agencies, so you can take a break, if only for a couple of hours.
- Find an adult day care program.
- Stay healthy and get medical care for yourself when necessary.
- Adopt stress reduction practices.
- Seek counseling for depression, which can lead to elder abuse.
- Find a support group for caregivers of the elderly.
- If you’re having problems with drug or alcohol abuse, get help.
And remember, elder abuse helplines offer help for caregivers as well. Call a helpline if you think there’s a possibility you might cross the line into elder abuse.
What you can do as a concerned friend or family member
- Watch for warning signs that might indicate elder abuse. If you suspect abuse, report it.
- Take a look at the elder’s medications. Does the amount in the vial jive with the date of the prescription?
- Watch for possible financial abuse. Ask the elder if you may scan bank accounts and credit card statements for unauthorized transactions.
- Call and visit as often as you can. Help the elder consider you a trusted confidante.
- Offer to stay with the elder so the caregiver can have a break — on a regular basis, if you can.
How you can protect yourself, as an elder, against elder abuse
- Make sure your financial and legal affairs are in order. If they aren’t, enlist professional help to get them in order, with the assistance of a trusted friend or relative if necessary.
- Keep in touch with family and friends and avoid becoming isolated, which increases your vulnerability to elder abuse.
- If you are unhappy with the care you’re receiving, whether it’s in your own home or in a care facility, speak up. Tell someone you trust and ask that person to report the abuse, neglect, or substandard care to your state’s elder abuse helpline or long term care ombudsman, or make the call yourself.
Finally, if you aren’t in a position to help an elder personally, you can volunteer or donate money to the cause of educating people about elder abuse, and you can lobby to strengthen state laws and policing so that elder abuse can be investigated and prosecuted more readily. The life you save down the line may be your own.
Free Toolkit Program
Resources & References
Helpguide’s Yellow Pages
Resources for public assistance, social services, and other health and human services.
General Information on Elder Abuse
Preventing & Reporting Elder Abuse – 39-page PDF booklet covering many aspects of elder abuse. (California Department of Justice)
Elder Abuse and Neglect: In Search of Solutions – Covers the facts about elder abuse, as well as signs of abuse and steps to take if abuse occurs. (American Psychological Association)
Frequently Asked Questions – Answers to 12 key questions about elder abuse; see Basics and other site links at left on page for additional information. (National Center on Elder Abuse, U.S Department of Health and Human Services)
What is Elder Abuse? – Site provides definitions of different types of elder abuse, along with signs and risk factors. (National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse)
Nursing Home Abuse
Nursing Home Abuse News – Provides information about elder abuse in nursing homes and steps you can take to protect a loved one from neglect or abuse. (Nursing Home Abuse News)
Preventing Elder Abuse
Preventing Elder Abuse by Family Caregivers – PDF article describing why it’s hard to be a caregiver, the potential for abuse, and where to find help. (National Center for Elder Abuse)
Reporting and stopping elder abuse
State Directory of Helplines, Hotlines, and Elder Abuse Prevention Resources - (National Center on Elder Abuse, Administration on Aging)
Elder abuse helplines and hotlines:
- US: 1-800-677-1116 (Eldercare Locator).
- UK: 0808 808 8141 or Ireland: 1800 940 010 (Action on Elder Abuse).
- Australia: 1300 651 192 (Elder Abuse Prevention Unit).
- South Africa: 080 111 2131 (Age In Action).
- Canada: visit Alberta Elder Abuse for local helplines.
- New Zealand: visit Age Concern NZ for local helplines.