What Is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse is an act or lack of action that harms an older person. Professional caretakers, family members, friends, and strangers can all commit abuse.
Elder abuse can take many forms, including physical injuries, financial exploitation, and verbal threats.
The NCOA estimates that as many as 5 million elders are abused in the U.S. each year. Elder abuse increases an older person’s risk of death threefold.
If you or a loved one has suffered from abuse, don’t wait to take action. Reporting elder abuse can put a stop to the harm being done and hold perpetrators accountable. You can also take legal action to seek financial aid for medical bills and other expenses.
Types of Elder Abuse
The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) recognizes 7 different types of elder abuse. Learn more about each type below.
Physical elder abuse is the improper and intentional use of physical force against an elder, resulting in bodily impairment, pain, injury, or harm.
Physical elder abuse may include:
- Restraint: Restricting the movement of an elder physically or by the inappropriate use of medications
- Rough handling: Being unnecessarily rough with an older person, such as during bathing or dressing
- Violence: This includes actions like punching, pushing, or grabbing
Any non-consensual sexual contact with an older person is elder sexual abuse.
Sexual elder abuse may include:
- Sexual assault: Unwanted touching or other sexual activities with an elder
- Unwelcome advances: Sexual harassment and unwanted verbal sexual propositions
- Sexual activity without consent: Any sexual contact with an elder who has been ruled unable to grant informed consent due to conditions like Alzheimer’s, who is not conscious, or who did not expressly consent to sexual activity
Elder financial abuse occurs when someone takes money or assets from an older person without their consent, full knowledge, and/or understanding. The NCOA notes that financial abuse costs elders $2.9-$36.5 billion each year.
Financial elder abuse may include:
- Coercion and abuse of power: Using a position of power or trust to get an elder to change their will or make financial transactions
- Stealing assets: Forging signatures of an elderly person, committing identity theft, or using an elder’s credit card to make purchases or withdraw cash
- Taking control of assets: Getting property deeds, accessing an inheritance, or taking other actions to acquire an elder’s assets
Psychological or emotional elder abuse refers to attempts to intimidate, demean, or belittle an older person.
Emotional elder abuse may include:
- Verbal abuse: Shouting, cursing at, insulting, or bullying
- Threats: Threatening to harm an elder, withhold health care services, or isolate them
- Isolation: Cutting an elder off from their friends, family, and social networks
- Limiting choices: Robbing an elder of their independence by limiting their freedom to choose everyday activities
Elder neglect happens when a caregiver fails to meet the expected needs of an older adult. Neglect can be just as dangerous as other types of abuse.
In 2019, seven nursing home employees in Ohio were charged with a variety of crimes after residents were injured or died under their supervision.
The Ohio attorney general noted that one resident “literally rotted to death” due to untreated wounds — a clear example of nursing home neglect.
This occurs when an older adult who can no longer take care of themselves refuses or does not seek help, leading to a decline in wellbeing. Common signs of elder self-neglect include poor personal hygiene, a dirty living environment, and untreated health problems.
Elder abandonment occurs when the caretaker of an older adult permanently deserts them. Nursing home residents are at risk of abandonment if the facility illegally evicts them.
According to a 2019 report from NBC News, thousands of elderly residents are ejected from nursing homes on a yearly basis. In 2018, over 1,400 people filed complaints about wrongful nursing home evictions in California alone.
Elder Abuse Causes
Elder mistreatment may occur for many reasons. Learn more about common causes of elder abuse below.
Elder abuse may be caused by:
Both professional and family caretakers can burn out or become overstressed while caring for an elderly person. In turn, they may take their stress out by abusing or neglecting the senior they’re supposed to help.
Cultural and Familial Influences
How caretakers and families view elders can impact the likelihood of elder abuse. A culture’s tolerance toward violence and expectations of family members in regard to caring for elders can also have an effect.
Understaffing in Nursing Homes
Many nursing homes do not have enough caretakers to adequately meet the needs of all residents. This lack of staffing means that caretakers are often expected to work long hours for low wages, increasing stress and exhaustion. This may cause staff to skip important care steps and take longer to respond to care requests.
Elder Abuse Risk Factors
While elder abuse can happen to anyone, certain factors put some older people at a higher risk.
Some elder abuse risk factors include:
The NCEA found that nearly 50% of older Americans that suffer from dementia have been abused. These adults also have a harder time reporting abuse due to their impairment.
Poor Physical Health
Elders with physical health issues may be at greater risk as they are more dependent on other people. This means they may be more likely to give in to threats or coercion out of fear of losing support. Also, they may not be able to defend themselves against abuse or leave an abusive situation.
Shared Living Situation
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that elders may be at greater risk for abuse if they are in a shared living situation where there are more opportunities for conflict between a caretaker and an older adult.
Seniors who are socially isolated may be more likely to be manipulated by an abuser due to loneliness and less likely to report elder abuse. Isolated elders may also be at higher risk because there are fewer people around to notice the abuse.
Who Commits Elder Abuse?
Anyone is capable of committing elder abuse. However, the NCOA found that nearly 60% of all perpetrators of elder abuse and neglect are family members.
Some caretakers — even those with good intentions — may be more likely to mistreat an elder.
Caretakers are at greater risk of committing elder abuse if they:
- Are not trained or well-prepared for caregiving
- Financially depend on the elder
- Have little or no access to caregiving services, such as respite care
- Have negative beliefs about aging and elders
- Have substance abuse or mental health problems
- Lack social and emotional support
Thankfully, older people and their loved ones can bring abusive caregivers to justice.
Elder Abuse in Nursing Homes
Elders in nursing homes face unique risks. A study of over 2,000 nursing facility residents found a nursing home abuse rate of 44% and a 95% rate of neglect.
Elder abuse in nursing homes may occur because:
- Living in a shared space puts nursing home residents in close contact with many people, including potential abusers.
- Many nursing homes suffer from understaffing, increasing the likelihood of abuse and neglect.
- Residents often need special care for mental and physical disabilities. These traits make them more vulnerable and put them at higher risk of abuse.
Warning Signs of Elder Abuse
Elder abuse is very dangerous and can leave a lasting impact on older adults. Looking out for elder abuse warning signs can help people protect their loved ones from further mistreatment.
Signs of elder abuse include:
- Frequent arguments between a caregiver and elder
- Poor hygiene
- Sudden changes in an older person’s financial situation
- Unexplained bruises, broken bones, burns, or marks
- Unusual alertness, shyness, or depression
- Unusual weight loss
- Withdrawal from normal activities
Preventing Elder Abuse
Unfortunately, while there is no foolproof way to make sure elderly loved ones are never abused, there are ways to help prevent elder abuse.
The risk of elder abuse may be lowered by:
- Being educated and educating other loved ones about elder abuse
- Being wary of those who are unusually interested in an elder’s finances
- Doing research on a nursing home before placing a loved one there
- Making sure elders stay in contact with friends and communities
- Making sure elders are informed about phone, internet, and mail scams
- Visiting and talking to elders frequently
Reporting Elder Abuse
If elder abuse does occur, it should be reported as soon as possible. Reporting elder abuse can help get your loved one out of harm’s way and protect others as well.
Elder abuse can be reported to:
- A local long-term care ombudsman (for elders in assisted living)
- Adult Protective Services (APS)
- An elder abuse hotline
- Law enforcement
- Nursing home abuse lawyers
Sadly, a study by the National Research Council estimated that only 1 in 14 elder abuse cases are reported to authorities. Though elder abuse is highly dangerous, older people may not report it due to fear of retaliation or mental/physical impairments.
In these cases, loved ones may need to step up and report abuse on the elder’s behalf.
Ombudsman for Elder Abuse in Nursing Homes
Elders in long-term care facilities or their loved ones can report abuse through their local ombudsman.
A nursing home ombudsman is a representative of residents and their families. Their job is to protect elders from potential abuse or neglect and work to resolve care complaints.
A long-term care ombudsman may protect elders through:
- Advocacy: Working directly with nursing home residents, family members, and nursing homes to address issues that elders and their loved ones may have
- Investigation: Visiting nursing homes and reporting their findings regarding the quality of care to local, state, and federal governments
Take Legal Action Against Elder Abuse
Reporting elder abuse to proper authorities can help determine if a crime has been committed. From there, you and your family may be able to take additional action through a nursing home abuse lawsuit.
Filing an elder abuse lawsuit may:
- Compensate elders and their families for financial losses, medical expenses, and hardship
- Lower the chance that an abuser will harm others
- Hold those who take advantage of elderly people accountable for their actions
Remember, elder abuse is never the fault of the victim. You and your family deserve compensation and peace of mind when abuse occurs.
To see if you may be able to file a lawsuit against someone who has committed nursing home abuse, get a free case review today.
Common Questions About Elder Abuse
What is the most common type of elder abuse?
Psychological mistreatment is the most common form of elder abuse, according to a 2020 study from the WHO.
1 in 3 residents or their family members reported instances of psychological abuse in nursing homes. Similarly, nearly 1 in 3 nursing home staff members admitted to emotionally abusing residents in the study.
What laws are in place to stop elder abuse?
There are both federal and state laws that aim to keep elders safe from abuse. State laws define what elder abuse is and outline punishments for those who commit it.
Federal laws like the Older Americans Act and the Nursing Home Reform Act help make sure that all residents receive the same level of care.
What kind of crime is elder abuse?
This depends on the type of elder abuse that has been committed. While some cases of neglect that result in minor injuries may be considered misdemeanors, serious instances of abuse may be felonies.
In 2021, a South Carolina nursing home employee was arrested after he exposed his genitals to an elderly female resident. He was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, a felony in the state.