What is elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
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.
What are the types of elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
Types of abuse of older adults include:
- Physical abuse: Physical abuse occurs when someone causes bodily harm to another person. Examples include pushing, hitting, slapping or restraining a person against their will. Physical abuse can cause pain or physical injuries.
- Sexual abuse: Sexual abuse is forced sexual contact or forcing someone to watch or participate in sexual activities.
- Neglect: Neglect is intentionally not providing someone’s basic physical, emotional or social needs. This includes a caregiver withholding food, shelter, healthcare or medicine from someone. Self-neglect is a form of neglect, too. This happens when a person isn’t able to take care of themselves physically or mentally on their own.
- Financial abuse: Financial abuse or exploitation is stealing money or personal belongings from someone. Examples include forging checks, using credit cards without someone’s permission or taking someone’s benefits like Social Security and using them as your own. This also includes convincing or coercing a vulnerable person to give away their belongings.
- Emotional abuse: Emotional abuse or psychological abuse occurs when someone yells at another person in a hurtful way, uses verbal threats, creates situations of fear or ignores another person within their care. Emotional abuse can include verbal harassment, berating, humiliation or intimidation.
- Abandonment: Abandonment happens when a vulnerable person who needs help is left alone without receiving any care from their assigned caregiver.
It’s common for vulnerable people to experience more than one type of abuse.
Who is at risk of elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
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:
- Are older than 60.
- Have an underlying health condition that affects their movement, mental function or senses.
- Need help taking care of themselves or live in a community setting.
- Don’t have loved ones or a support network nearby.
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.
How common is elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
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.
Where does elder abuse (abuse of older adults) happen?
Abuse of older adults can happen anywhere. Some of the most common places where abuse happens are in:
- A person’s home.
- A group home.
- An assisted living or care facility.
What are the signs of elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
Signs of abuse of an older adult include:
- Unexplained bed sores, bruises, burns, cuts or scrapes, scars and broken bones (bone fractures).
- Isolation or withdrawal from usual activities.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Mood changes, depression or agitation.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Someone not having access to their usual medical equipment like glasses, a walker, hearing aids or other assistive devices.
- Living in unsafe or unhygienic conditions.
- Sudden, unexplained changes to someone’s financial situation.
- Worsening medical conditions that result in someone frequently visiting the emergency room or needing to stay in the hospital.
What are the consequences of elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
Abuse of an older adult has both short-term and long-term effects on people’s physical and mental health, including:
- Depression and anxiety.
- Fear or lack of trust in other people.
- Physical injuries that can be disabling.
- Complications of untreated or mismanaged health conditions that can be life-threatening.
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.
How can I prevent elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
Some strategies to prevent elder abuse could include:
- Preparing legal documents like your will and healthcare power of attorney with someone you trust.
- Frequently visiting or checking in with family members and friends who are vulnerable.
- Banking with direct deposit instead of checks.
- Keeping a record of financial transactions and reporting any suspicious activity.
- Never giving away personal information over the phone.
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.
How do I report elder abuse (abuse of older adults)?
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.
Is it OK to call abuse of an older person “elderly abuse”?
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).
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy