What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse is when another person takes advantage of or harms an elderly person. Elder abuse can take many different forms, including the following:
- Neglect or abandonment is when a caregiver fails to provide adequate care or deserts the older adult. This is the most common type of elder abuse.
- Physical abuse is the use of physical force to purposely cause pain or injury. Examples include hitting, pushing, or restraining the older adult.
- Emotional and verbal abuse is when a person uses words or nonverbal actions to cause the older adult emotional pain. Examples include yelling at, ignoring, or making fun of the older adult.
- Sexual abuse is when a person engages in sexual acts with an older adult but without that adult's consent. Examples include intercourse and inappropriate touching or undressing.
- Financial exploitation is using an older adult's money or property without his or her permission. Examples include using credit cards or checks, stealing jewelry, or stealing the person's identity. Organizations or scam artists may also financially exploit older adults. Typically, this happens when the older adult pays money to a fake charity or investment fund, or to claim a fake prize.
Why does elder abuse occur?
As people become older, they may develop health problems that lead to a decrease in physical strength, vision, and thinking abilities. These changes can make older adults vulnerable. They may be dependent on others for care or unable to tell when someone is taking advantage of them.
Who commits elder abuse?
Anyone can commit elder abuse. It is estimated that 2 out of every 3 abusers are family members, such as adult children or spouses, who care for the older adult. Caregivers have an increased risk of committing elder abuse when:
- They are not able to cope with the stress of being a caregiver.
- They are depressed.
- They don't have a support system.
- They abuse alcohol or other drugs.
Abusers also may include health care workers, neighbors or friends, and organizations or scam artists looking to financially exploit older adults.
What are the warning signs of abuse?
An older adult who is neglected or is being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused may have one or more of the following physical and behavioral warning signs:
- Unexplained injuries, such as cuts, burns, or broken bones
- Unexplained marks on the body, such as scars or bruises
- Untreated medical conditions, such as not receiving medicine or the right amount of medicine
- Changes in behavior or personality, such as withdrawal or depression
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
- Coping mechanisms, such as rocking back and forth or talking to oneself
- Weight loss or other symptoms of malnutrition or dehydration
- Personal hygiene problems, such as unwashed skin or clothes, or dirty living conditions
The warning signs of financial exploitation include one or more of the following:
- Unexplained withdrawals from the older adult's ATM card or checking or savings accounts
- Unexplained or unusual credit card purchases
- Missing jewelry, cash, or other valuables
- Suspicious or too-good-to-be-true investment or prize offers
A caregiver who is abusing an older adult may:
- Refuse to let you be alone with the older adult
- Threaten, make fun of, or argue with the older adult in front of you
- Not respond to your questions about the older adult's care
- Appear poorly trained or overworked
What should I do if I suspect elder abuse?
If you are an older adult who is being abused or is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or your local police department for help.
If you have seen or suspect elder abuse, report it. Every state has a toll-free elder abuse hotline that you can call to report elder abuse at home or in care facilities. Visit the National Center on Elder Abuse website to find the telephone number for your state.
To report elder abuse, you do not have to prove that the abuse actually is occurring. In most cases, an agency called Adult Protective Services will respond to your call. These professionals will investigate the situation and take action if it is needed.
How can I help prevent elder abuse?
If you are a caregiver, take care of your health and learn how to manage your stress. This will help you provide the best possible care for your loved one. If you become overwhelmed or think you might start abusing an older adult, get help. Talk to your family doctor about your feelings and find someone else to care for your relative until you are feeling better.
If your loved one is receiving care at home or in a long-term care facility, stay involved in his or her care. If you are unhappy with the care he or she is receiving, speak to management or report suspected abuse to the state.
To help prevent financial exploitation, make sure your loved one's financial and legal documents are in order. Although some of the information applies only to older adults who have dementia, read "Planning for the Future after a Diagnosis of Dementia" for a list of financial and legal issues to discuss with your family members. Also, regularly review your loved one's bank and credit card statements and try to keep track of household valuables.
- National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
- U.S. Administration on Aging
- National Center on Elder Abuse
- Elder Abuse Hotline
- Administration on Aging. What is Elder Abuse? by Administration on Aging ( April 10, 2012)
- National Center on Elder Abuse. Why Should I Care About Elder Abuse? (PDF). by National Center on Elder Abuse ( April 10, 2012)
- National Center on Elder Abuse. Who Are the Abusers? by National Center on Elder Abuse ( April 10, 2012)
- Helpguide.org. Elder Abuse and Neglect by Helpguide.org ( April 10, 2012)
- National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. What is Elder Abuse? by National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse ( April 10, 2012)
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.