Elder Abuse: How To Spot And Stop It
Rebecca Joy Stanborough |15 March 2022
In the United States, elder abuse in all its forms is becoming more common as the population ages. It’s more common in nursing homes and care facilities, according to a 2018 study. But it can happen anywhere, including in your own home.
To protect yourself and the older adults in your life, get to know the warning signs of abuse and learn where and when to report suspected abuse.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse is any act that harms older adults. The harm can take many forms. It can be carried out by relatives, financial advisors, caregivers, spouses, or anyone else who interacts with someone who is older. Sometimes, older adults can even neglect or harm themselves.
The National Council on Aging reports that 1 in 10 adults over 60 years old has experienced abuse. Abuse may raise the risk of death for older adults by 300 percent.
Some experts suggest that elder abuse isn’t often reported. That could be because those involved feel shame or fear about reporting. Some may be unsure how to report abuse. Some may be confused about whether what is happening qualifies as abuse. In some cases, abusers prevent older adults from reporting abuse by isolating them or destroying computers or phones that they could use to seek help.
It’s important to know that elder abuse doesn’t go away on its own. Someone usually has to step in and put a stop to the mistreatment.
What are the types of elder abuse?
Elder abuse can occur in many forms. Understanding the types can help you spot the signs and help individuals escape elder abuse. Individuals who experience elder abuse are often affected by more than one type. According to the National Center of Elder Abuse, the types of elder abuse include:
- physical abuse
- emotional abuse
- sexual abuse
- financial or material exploitation
What are the signs of physical abuse?
Physical abuse is using force in a way that causes pain or injury to an older adult. If someone tells you they’re being abused, take the report seriously. It’s also important to notice if caregivers don’t want you to be alone with a person in their care, or if they require lots of advance notice before you visit.
Look for these signs of physical abuse:
- bruises, scrapes, burns, fractures, welts, swelling, or other injuries
- signs of being restrained, such as rope marks
- broken eyeglasses
- lost or damaged phones
- fear, anxiety, and other changes in emotion
- withdrawal, silence, rocking, and other signs of trauma
- lab reports that show too much or not enough prescribed medication
What are the signs of emotional elder abuse?
Emotional abuse can be harder to spot than visible clues like bruises and broken bones. But emotional abuse can be even more devastating to vulnerable older adults. If you hear a caregiver or family member dismissing an older adult’s concerns, or isolating, controlling, belittling, antagonizing, or yelling at them, find out more about what’s going on.
Here’s what to watch for:
- changes to eating or sleeping patterns
- emotional changes, such as becoming fearful, anxious, depressed, agitated, or withdrawn
- signs of trauma, such as rocking
- excessive apologizing
- asking for permission to do usual or necessary functions
If an older adult tells you a caregiver or family member is cruel or emotionally abusive, take the report seriously. No one should have to live with emotionally damaging treatment.
What are the signs of sexual elder abuse?
Sexual abuse is any type of sexual contact that happens without consent. An inherent power differential and its impact on consent are also involved in sexual abuse, and it can happen in any setting. If an older adult tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or touched in an inappropriate way, take the report seriously and get help.
Look for these warning signs:
- vaginal or anal bleeding
- sexually transmitted infections
- bruises on breasts or around genitals
- emotional changes, such as anxiety, fear, depression, or withdrawal
- reluctance to use the bathroom or to bathe
- torn or stained underwear or bedding
- signs that pornography is being shown to an older adult
- pelvic injuries
- trouble sitting or walking
- signs of an inappropriate connection between a caregiver and older adult
- changes in personality, such as aggression, sexually inappropriate behavior, or agitation
What are the signs of financial elder abuse or exploitation?
Financial abuse is when someone uses an older adult’s money, assets, benefits, credit, or property without their understanding and consent.
- changes in spending patterns
- unexpected withdrawals of money from ATMs
- online fund transfers
- missing possessions or valuables
- changes in insurance beneficiaries
- signatures you don’t recognize on financial documents
- new names on bank signature cards or joint accounts
- new loans or mortgages
- unopened or unpaid bills piling up
- notices of eviction or warnings that essential services like utilities will be turned off
What are the signs of neglect?
Neglect is when someone responsible for the care of an older adult withholds the food, water, care, medication, or supplies they need. Unsafe environments are also considered neglectful.
If someone tells you their needs are being neglected, take the report seriously. Without proper care, chronic health conditions can get worse and older adults may be at risk of early death. Here are some signs to watch for:
- unexplained weight loss
- bed sores or untreated injuries
- lack of nutritious food in the home
- no heat or air conditioning
- environment that smells of urine or feces
- unkempt appearance
- unwashed clothing or bedding
- long fingernails or toenails
- poor dental care
- tripping hazards
- pets that appear to be uncared for
- needed equipment, such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, walkers, wheelchairs, medications, or canes, isn’t where it should be
What are the signs of abandonment?
Abandonment occurs when a person who is responsible for providing care for an older adult or who has legal custody of them deserts that adult.
Signs of elder abandonment include:
- a report by an older adult that their caregiver has abandoned them
- leaving an older adult at a public location like a shopping center or store
- leaving an older adult at an institution like a hospital or nursing home
How to report suspected elder abuse
Intimate partner violence and family violence can happen to anyone. People of all ages, genders, races, religions, and financial statuses can experience abuse from spouses or others in close relationships.
If you suspect that someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, report it to one of the following organizations:
- Local law enforcement agency. Call 911 in the United States or 112 in much of Europe.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 800-799-7233.
- Elder Abuse Protection Center. Use the State Elder Abuse Hotlines or call 800-677-1116.
- National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative. Use the State/Tribal Hotlines.
- National Center on Elder Abuse. Call 855-500-3537.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.
- SAGE LGBTQ+ Elder Hotline. Call 877-360-LGBT (5428).
How to help prevent elder abuse
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking these steps to make elder abuse less likely:
- Listen to older adults when they tell you about bad treatment.
- Report abuse when you suspect it.
- Learn to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect.
- Stay in touch with older adults in the care of others.
- Offer some relief to caregivers.
- Get help for caregivers or family members with substance use problems.
You can also help older adults to stay physically active and engaged with faith communities, civic organizations, support groups, or interest groups. Isolation may make abuse more likely.
Who is most at risk?
Any older adult who relies on others to help them with daily activities is at risk of elder abuse. Researchers have identified a higher risk of abuse among:
- adults over 80 years old
- People of Color
- residents of long-term care facilities
- people with low income
The CDC reports that men have a higher risk of experiencing violent assault or homicide than women.
The risk of elder abuse is higher when caregivers:
- are untrained
- feel burdened by the responsibility
- have a substance use disorder
- are financially dependent on the older adult
- have a mental illness or personality disorder
- are caring for an older adult with a mental illness or personality disorder
- have limited community resources
- Research suggests that just 5 percent TrustedSource of elder abuse cases are ever reported. In one small 2019 study Trusted Source involving 87 cases of documented abuse, 72 percent of the victims were women, and more Black women than white women were abused. In most cases where the person abused was a woman, the abuser was the victim’s son and had abused them before.
Researchers found that abuse happened more frequently right after events like these:
- Someone threatened to call the authorities.
- An argument about household matters took place.
- Someone confronted an abuser about financial exploitation or theft.
- Someone tried to stop the abuser from entering the home.
- A conflict over child rearing or substance use took place.
- Someone tried to stop an abuser from a violent act on a family member.
- A disagreement about a romantic relationship took place.
Risk factors and protective factors for older Black Americans
A 2018 report by the National Center on Elder Abuse states that Black Americans have a higher risk of being financially exploited and psychologically abused.
The report says “poverty, institutionalized racism, and structural segregation” raise the risk of abuse.
However, the study also points out that Black Americans may be protected by a sense of family loyalty, spirituality, and community, along with respect for older adults and mothers.
Caring for caregivers
Elder abuse can sometimes happen when caregivers are stressed or overwhelmed by the demands of looking after older adults. Caregiver stress is not an excuse for abuse or neglect.
It’s important for people in professional or personal care roles to take care of themselves so they don’t burn out or become resentful, which can in some cases lead to neglect or abuse.
For tips on how to care for yourself if you’re feeling burned out on caregiving, read this.
Elder abuse and neglect can lower quality of life, worsen chronic health conditions, and even threaten the lives of older adults. Few cases of elder abuse and neglect are reported, so it’s especially important to pay close attention to warning signs of physical, emotional, financial, or sexual abuse.
If someone you know tells you they are being abused, or if you spot signs of abuse, don’t take a watch-and-wait approach. Report the abuse to someone who can protect the older adult experiencing the abuse.