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Physical Elder Abuse

Understanding Physical Abuse of the Elderly

Quick Answer

In New York, a 90-year-old woman was slapped by a nursing home staff member, badly bruising her face, according to police. The employee was arrested and faces a year in jail if convicted. Physical elder abuse is a crime that victimizes elderly parents, grandparents, and loved ones every year. To keep these loved ones safe, families should understand the common signs of physical abuse and what actions they can take to keep their loved ones safe.

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What Is Physical Elder Abuse?

Physical elder abuse is any form of violence or harm that leaves an older person significantly injured. These injuries may require months of recovery or even contribute to an elder’s death.

Physical abuse against the elderly may be perpetrated by family members, friends, nursing home staff members, or other residents. This form of elder abuse may happen regularly or just once. Sadly, since older people’s bodies are weaker, even a single instance of abuse can lead to long-term health problems or even death.

Did You Know

Physical elder abuse can be hard to recognize, but telltale signs include strange injuries or negative behavioral changes in an older person.

To prevent physical abuse, trusted family members should keep a close watch on their elderly loved ones who receive care from others. Any possible signs of physical abuse should be reported to local authorities.

Quick Facts About Physical Elder Abuse

  • 9.3% of nursing home staff members admitted to physically abusing elderly residents, according to a 2017 study analyzed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), only 1 in 20 cases of physical elder abuse is reported to authorities.
  • In a Connecticut study on aging, researchers found that just 9% of seniors who were physically abused or neglected were still alive after 13 years, compared to 40% of those who weren’t abused.
  • The Office of Women’s Health (OWH) claims that physical elder abuse is more likely to come from spouses or romantic partners.

Types of Physical Elder Abuse

Any type of intentional harm that comes to an elder from another person may be considered physical abuse.

Types of physical elder abuse may include:

  • Bruising
  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Punching
  • Pushing/shoving
  • Restraining
  • Scratching
  • Slapping

Physical harm is just one type of elder abuse, and seniors can suffer from multiple forms of abuse at once. For example, abusers may also threaten elders with physical violence, perpetrating emotional abuse.

What Causes Physical Elder Abuse?

There is not one overarching cause of physical elder abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a couple of different factors may cause caregivers to abuse the elderly.

Caregivers may be more likely to commit abuse if they: 

  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Live with the caregiver
  • Have a criminal history
  • Have a mental illness
  • Rely on the caregiver for money or emotional support
  • Were exposed to abuse as a child

Physical abuse may be the culmination of years of stress placed on the caregiver, especially if it is a family member. Or, in the case of nursing home abuse, overworked staff members may feel the need to take out their stress on residents.

That being said, there is never an excuse for elder abuse. Elderly people deserve to live out the end of their lives with the best care possible.

Risk Factors for Physical Elder Abuse

While any older person under the care of another may be abused, some elders may run a greater risk than others.

Common risk factors for physical abuse include: 

  • Mental or Physical Illnesses

    The Alzheimer’s Association notes that people with mental impairments are at a higher risk of abuse. These seniors often require extra attention or more intensive care, which can frustrate their caregivers.

  • Isolation

    Seniors who live in remote areas or far away from their relatives may be abused by a caregiver. Abuse may also cause seniors to become withdrawn and to limit their social activities, preventing others from noticing warning signs of abuse.

  • Disabilities

    According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), adults with disabilities suffer from interpersonal violence at higher rates than those who are not disabled.

Many of these factors are directly out of an older person’s control. Yet, abusers may blame the senior for the abuse, adding insult to injury.

Signs of Physical Elder Abuse

To spot physical elder abuse, the first place to look is often the senior’s body.

Physical signs of elder abuse include:

  • Burns from appliances or cigarettes
  • Bruises, especially around the arm
  • Broken bones
  • Dislocated joints
  • Hair or tooth loss
  • Sprains

It is important to keep a lookout for emotional changes, too. While the physical effects of elder abuse directly harm the body, nursing home residents can also become emotionally traumatized from abuse.

Emotional signs of physical abuse include: 

  • Failure to explain how an elder was injured (such as hesitation or changing stories)
  • Strained relationships between caregiver and elder
  • Withdrawal from social activities they normally enjoy

Finally, take note of the senior’s wounds over time and if they heal properly. If their wounds do not heal properly — or new wounds continue to appear — they may be suffering from abuse.

Health care signs of physical abuse include:

  • A delay in receiving medical care for an injury the elder receives
  • A past history of hospitalizations, often for similar injuries
  • Trips to various emergency rooms to avoid detection of abuse

Any of these signs could indicate that an elder has been abused — and that they still could be in danger.

Treating Physical Elder Abuse

Elderly loved ones who have been physically abused should be taken to a doctor or emergency room as soon as possible. Older people typically have frailer skin and bones, and without prompt treatment, a simple injury could have life-threatening complications.

Further, family members should also make sure that their loved one is in a safe environment after they receive treatment. Do not take them back to a place (such as a nursing home) where they could be abused again.

How to Prevent Physical Elder Abuse

There are steps that family members and seniors can take to prevent elder abuse. If possible, family members should visit their older loved ones frequently and take note of any of the warning signs listed above.

Family members should also look at the overall quality of the resident’s care. Is their home or nursing home in good shape? Do the elderly relative, other residents, and the staff seem happy? If not, the risk of abuse or neglect may be higher.

Elders without physical or mental impairments (such as dementia) may also be able to prevent abuse against themselves. They should stay in touch with family and friends to ensure they have visitors as often as possible. Seniors who believe they are being abused should reach out to someone who can help, such as a trusted relative or the police.

Reporting Physical Elder Abuse: Protect Your Loved One

It is always best to report elder abuse even if you are not sure that it has occurred. It is better to speak up than to have your loved ones suffer.

Responsible family members are the first line of defense when it comes to health care. For example, elders suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia may not be able to self-report incidences of abuse.

Did You Know

Even seniors who can speak for themselves may choose not to out of fear of retaliation. Therefore, it is important for family members to report elder abuse on behalf of their loved ones.

Sadly, elder abuse still goes unreported today, meaning many seniors suffer without any reparation.

If you believe your loved one has suffered from physical elder abuse, get a free case review. You may be able to receive financial compensation for your loved one’s injuries.

Nursing Home Abuse Support Team
Julie Rivers HeadshotReviewed by:Julie Rivers, MBA

Eldercare Advocate & Expert

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Julie Rivers is an eldercare advocate with over 15 years of dedicated service to victims of nursing home abuse and neglect. Her journey in this field became deeply personal when she assumed the role of an unpaid caregiver during her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

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.

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, May 28). Risk and Protective Factors. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from
  3. Mulder, J. T. (2019, December 4). Nurse aide slaps 90-year-old patient in face, police say. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from
  4. National Council on Aging. (2018, June 15). Elder Abuse. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from
  5. Office on Women's Health. (2018, September 13). Elder abuse. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from
  6. World Health Organization. (2018, June 8). Elder abuse. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from
  7. World Health Organization. (n.d.). World Report on Violence and Health: Chapter 5 - Abuse of the Elderly. Retrieved December 11, 2019, from