Elder abuse or abuse of an older adult is the intentional harming of a vulnerable person over the age of 60. Types of abuse include inflicting pain, neglect or financial exploitation. If you notice signs of abuse, like unexplained injuries, isolation or sudden changes to a person’s financial situation, report them to local authorities immediately.
Elder abuse, also known as abuse of older adults, older people or abuse of a vulnerable adult, is intentionally harming a person who’s older than 60. This could be by intentionally inflicting pain (physical or emotional), neglect or financial exploitation. Abuse causes serious risk and harm.
Abuse can happen anywhere and to anyone. Most often, people closest to a vulnerable adult are the ones who mistreat them. If you or a loved one experiences abuse, reach out to local authorities and/or adult protective services to report it.
Types of abuse of older adults include:
It’s common for vulnerable people to experience more than one type of abuse.
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Abuse of older adults can happen to anyone, regardless of their race, gender, culture or socioeconomic background. Risk factors of abuse of vulnerable adults may include people who:
Women or people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are more at risk of abuse than men or people assigned male at birth (AMAB). Also, people diagnosed with dementia are at an increased risk of abuse because they may not recognize abuse or be able to report it.
Abuse of older adults is common. Around 1 in 10 people older than 60 in the United States experience some form of abuse. Every state in the U.S. has laws in place to prevent elder abuse, but many cases go unreported.
Abuse of older adults can happen anywhere. Some of the most common places where abuse happens are in:
Signs of abuse of an older adult include:
Abuse of an older adult has both short-term and long-term effects on people’s physical and mental health, including:
Some cases of elder abuse are life-threatening. Call 911 (or your local emergency services number) or go to the emergency room if you or someone you know is in immediate danger.
Some strategies to prevent elder abuse could include:
Education is the most effective form of abuse prevention. When you know the signs and risk factors of abuse (and the effects that abuse has on a person), you can take action when it happens.
If you’re a caregiver and experience stress or face challenges providing adequate care, it’s OK to ask for support. The National Alliance of Caregiving in the U.S. offers resources to help caregivers when they need it. You can also reach out to your loved ones, support groups and community organizations.
Even though there are laws against abuse in every state in the U.S., abuse still happens. If you suspect abuse, contact your local adult protective services to report it. Call 911 (or your local emergency services number), or seek help from your local law enforcement if you suspect someone is in immediate danger (including yourself).
Take action if you notice signs of abuse on a loved one. Unfortunately, the situation won’t resolve on its own so you need to be that person’s advocate.
First, try talking with your loved one to learn more. You can calmly ask, “Is someone hurting you?” and/or “Are you in pain?” It isn’t always easy for someone who experiences abuse to be open about what’s happening to them. They may feel shame, fear, guilt or other emotions that may affect their ability to ask for help and be honest with you.
If you still suspect abuse after a conversation, you should report it. Contact local adult protective services, a care facility representative or local law enforcement. In the U.S., the Administration for Community Living and Administration on Aging have a joint website to connect you to local services and a helpline to answer your questions at 1-800-677-1116.
You don’t need to be certain or be able to prove that abuse is taking place to report it. Local services will open a case and complete an investigation for you. Reporting is confidential.
A healthcare provider can also help by examining a person and providing guidance if they suspect abuse.
You have the right to voice concerns about yourself or a loved one who needs care from someone else or lives in a full-time care environment. A specialist called an ombudsperson (also known as an ombudsman) at care facilities can advocate and intervene on your behalf. You can also report abuse to your local and state authorities.
The preferred phrase to identify elder abuse is “abuse of older adults,” “abuse of older people” or “abuse of a vulnerable adult.” Words like “elderly” may have a negative meaning when referring to people. While this type of abuse affects people older than 60, not everyone in this age group feels like they’re “old.” When you use age-defining terms, it may hurt someone’s feelings. If you’re unsure what term people prefer, you can simply call the event “abuse.” No matter what word or phrase someone prefers, if abuse happens, report it immediately.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Abuse can have serious effects on a person’s physical and mental health and impact their quality of life. Abuse is common among vulnerable adults who might not be able to advocate for themselves or get the help they need on their own. If you see signs of abuse or witness abuse of an older person, report it to your local authorities or call 911 (or your local emergency services number).
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/22/2023.
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