Elder Abuse

What Is Elder Abuse?

Quick Answer

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), about one in 10 Americans aged 60 or older have suffered from some type of abuse. Elder abuse — defined as an inappropriate act that harms an elder — results in a countless amount of physical, emotional, and financial harm. However, older adults and their loved ones have options to lower the risk of abuse and fight back.

What Is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is an act or lack of appropriate action that harms an older person and is committed by someone with whom that elder has an expectation of trust.

Professional caretakers, family members, friends, and strangers can all commit elder abuse, and this abuse can take many forms, from physical to emotional to financial.

According to the NCOA, elder abuse increases an elderly person’s risk of death threefold. In addition, elder financial abuse costs older Americans $2.9-$36.5 Billion a year in financial exploitation and fraud.

Quick Facts About Elder Abuse

  • The NCOA estimates that about 10% of all Americans aged 60 or older have experienced some form of elder abuse.
  • The NCOA estimates that as many as 5 million elders are abused in the U.S. each year.
  • A study by the National Research Council estimated that only 1 in 14 elder abuse cases are reported to authorities.
  • In almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect incidents, the perpetrator is a family member.
  • Abused elders have a 300% higher risk of death than elders who have not been abused.

Types of Elder Abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) recognizes 7 different types of elder abuse.

Physical Abuse

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:

  • Physical violence: This includes actions like punching, pushing, or grabbing
  • Threat of violence: Implying or threatening physical harm
  • Caretaker violence: Being unnecessarily rough with an older person, such as during bathing or dressing
  • Physical restraint: Restricting the movement of an elder physically or by the inappropriate use of medications

Sexual Abuse

Any non-consensual sexual contact with an elderly person is elder sexual abuse. The sexual acts may be unwelcomed or done to an elder who is unable to legally consent — often due to mental disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Sexual elder abuse may include:

  • Sexual assault: Unwanted touching or other sexual activities with an elder
  • Unwelcome advances: Sexual harassment and unwanted verbal sexual advances
  • Sexual activity without consent: Any sexual contact with an elder who has been ruled unable to grant informed consent, who is not conscious, or who did not expressly consent to sexual activity

Financial Abuse

Financial elder abuse occurs when someone takes money or assets from an older person without their consent or without their full knowledge and understanding.

Financial elder abuse may include:

  • Stealing assets: Forging signatures of an elderly person, committing identity theft, using an elder’s credit card to make purchases or withdraw cash, etc.
  • Taking control of assets: Getting property deeds, accessing an inheritance, or other means of acquiring an elder’s assets that are exploitative
  • Coercion and abuse of power: Using a position of power or trust over an elder to get them to change a will or enter into a financial transaction for personal gain

Emotional Abuse

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 an older person
  • Threats: Threatening to mistreat an elder, to withhold important support or services, etc.
  • 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

Other Types of Elder Abuse

The remaining 3 types of elder abuse are often considered forms of neglect by state law. Neglect is a form of abuse that involves failing to properly care for someone — and it can be just as harmful as other types of elder abuse.

The 3 remaining types of elder abuse include:

  • Neglect: Elder neglect happens when a caregiver fails to meet the expected needs of a dependent older adult.
  • Self-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.
  • Abandonment: Elder abandonment occurs when the caretaker of an older adult permanently deserts the elderly person who was in their care.

Elder Abuse Causes

Elder abuse may occur for many reasons. The demands of looking after an elderly person and the vulnerability of a dependent older adult may both be root causes of elder abuse.

Elder abuse may be caused by:

  • Caretaker Stress

    Both professional and family caretakers can burn out or become overstressed from caring for an elderly person, increasing the risk of abuse and neglect. This is especially true of caretakers who do not have much emotional, financial, and practical support.

  • Cultural and Familial Influences

    How caretakers and families view elders can impact the likelihood of elder abuse. A culture’s tolerance toward violence, view of the elderly, and expectations of family members in regard to caring for elders can all have an effect.

  • Understaffing in Nursing Homes

    Many nursing homes do not have enough caretakers to adequately see to the needs of all of their residents. This lack of staffing means that caretakers are often expected to work long hours for low wages, increasing stress and exhaustion. This may lead to skipping important care steps, rushing nursing home residents, and taking longer to respond to care requests.

Elder Abuse Risk Factors

While elder abuse can happen to any older person, certain factors put some elders at a higher risk of abuse.

Some elder abuse risk factors include:

  • Poor physical health: Elders in poor physical health may be more at risk of abuse because 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. These elders are also less able to defend themselves physically against abusers or to leave an abusive situation.
  • Poor mental health: A 2014 study found that elders who suffer from conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s are more likely to be victims of abuse. Not only are such elders often easier to take advantage of, people are less likely to believe them when they report abuse.
  • 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.
  • Social isolation: Elders who are socially isolated may be more likely to be manipulated by an abuser due to loneliness and less likely to report 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. In fact, according to the NCOA, 60% of all perpetrators of elder abuse are family members. Some individuals look for vulnerable victims like the elderly. However, 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 responsibilities
  • Have high financial dependence 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

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:

  • Elders in nursing homes often need special care for mental and physical disabilities — traits that make them more vulnerable and put them at higher risk of abuse.
  • 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.

Warning Signs of Elder Abuse

Looking out for elder abuse warning signs can help people protect their loved ones from mistreatment.

Some signs of elder abuse include:

  • Bedsores, poor hygiene, or unusual weight loss
  • Frequent arguments between a caregiver and elder
  • Sudden changes in an older person’s financial situation
  • Unexplained bruises, broken bones, burns, or marks
  • Unusual alertness, shyness, or depression
  • 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 sudden new “best friends” or people who seem unusually interested in an elder’s finances
  • 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 the unthinkable happens and elder abuse does occur, it should be reported as soon as possible. Reporting abuse lowers the likelihood of the abuse continuing and helps protect other elders as well.

Elder abuse can be reported to:

  • A local long-term care ombudsman (for elders in assisted living institutions)
  • Adult Protective Services (APS)
  • An elder abuse hotline
  • Law enforcement

Elder Abuse Ombudsman

An ombudsman for the elderly is a representative of residents of nursing homes or other facilities or organizations that provide care for elderly citizens. Their job is to protect elders from potential abuse or neglect.

A long-term care ombudsman may protect elders through:

  • Advocacy: Working directly with nursing home residents, family members, and nursing homes to address complaints that elders and their loved ones may have regarding their care
  • Investigation: Visiting nursing homes and reporting their findings regarding the quality of eldercare to local, state, and federal governments

Elders in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities or their loved ones can report abuse through their local ombudsman.

Take Legal Action Against Elder Abuse

Taking legal action against elder abuse may mean many things, including getting a restraining order, pursuing criminal prosecution, or filing an elder or nursing home abuse lawsuit.

Filing an elder abuse lawsuit may:

  • Compensate elders 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

In order to file a lawsuit against someone who has committed elder abuse, contact:

  • Your local ombudsman: Will help assisted care facility residents to seek legal representation
  • The Administration of Aging: May help those with economic or social needs by providing a network of free legal services
  • A private elder abuse lawyer: May provide specialized knowledge and experience to help elders and their families get the best chance at justice possible

If you or a loved one has suffered abuse or neglect, we can help. Get a legal case review today.

Author:Avatar
The Nursing Home Abuse Center Team

The Nursing Home Abuse Center (NHAC) was founded to bring justice to those affected by nursing home and elder abuse. Our mission is to educate and empower victims of abuse and their families to take a stand against this unlawful mistreatment. We work to return dignity back to those who have been broken down by nursing home abuse and neglect.

Last modified: March 4, 2020

View 12 Sources
  1. National Council on Aging. (2019, November 18). What is elder abuse? Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/
  2. What is Elder Abuse? (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/what-is-elder-abuse/
  3. Elder Physical Abuse. (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/elder-physical-abuse/
  4. Financial Elder Abuse / Exploitation. (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/financial-elder-abuse/
  5. Psychological Elder Abuse. (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/psychological-elder-abuse/
  6. Elder Sexual Abuse. (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/elder-sexual-abuse/
  7. Nursing Home Abuse. (2019). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://elderabuse.org/nursing-home-abuse/
  8. National Institute on Aging. (2016, December 29). Elder Abuse. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/elder-abuse
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, May 28). Risk and Protective Factors. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/elderabuse/riskprotectivefactors.html
  10. World Health Organization. (2018, 8 June). Elder abuse. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/elder-abuse
  11. Dong, X., Chen, R., & Simon, M. A. (2014, April). Elder Abuse And Dementia: A Review Of The Research And Health Policy. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2013.1261
  12. Martin, D. (2013, October 21). Elders at Risk for Abuse in Every Culture. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.healthcentral.com/article/elders-at-risk-for-abuse-in-every-culture
Back to Top