Elder Abuse & Neglect – Warning Signs & How to Prevent it

How to prevent elder abuse and neglect

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According to the CDC, an elder is classed as someone over the age of 60 and devastating reports from the World Health Organization state that as many as 1 in 6 older adults are subject to abuse at some point in their older years.

By the year 2040, it is estimated that the USA will be home to around 80 million older adults. Going by the statistics, this means that as many as 13 million of these people may be victims of elder abuse. It takes a community effort to protect the more vulnerable members of society, and the fight against elder abuse and neglect begins by noticing its presence.

What is Elder Neglect & Abuse?

Elder abuse and neglect happen much more frequently than many of us might like to believe. What’s even more worrying is that this neglect and abuse can come in many forms. To make things even more disturbing, it is believed that most elder abuse comes from a person in a position of trust such as a family member or caregiver.

Elder abuse is classed as any type of abuse that is given to a person aged 60 or over.

Elder abuse stats

Types of Elder Neglect & Abuse

Elder abuse warning signs and how to prevent it

When many people think of abuse, they may immediately imagine physical violence. While this does occur and certainly comes under the umbrella of neglect and abuse of elders, it is sadly, far from being the only form.

Physical Abuse

Physical violence is something that most people would associate with elder abuse. This type of abuse can take many forms, although it is typically displayed through acts of violence such as hitting, burning, kicking, and pushing. Although ultimately, physical abuse can be classed as any type of unwanted contact that results in physical pain or injury.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse, sometimes called emotional abuse, comes when an individual uses tactics that aim to threaten, upset, humiliate or instill fear in another person. Where elder abuse is concerned, this could be any verbal or non-verbal action that causes them to experience emotional or mental distress.

Financial Abuse

When an individual uses their power to take control of the finances of an older person for their own gain, this can be seen as financial abuse. This type of elder abuse can take many forms and may include but is not limited to theft, fraud, and improper use of material items or money belonging to the older adult.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is another type of elder abuse that can take many forms. At the far extreme of the scale, crimes such as rape may be committed. However, older adults may also be subject to various forms of unwanted sexual contact as well as sexual remarks and behavior. This type of abuse may also involve sexual harassment.


Neglect happens when the older adult is denied their basic needs. This might include not being provided with correct nutrition, exercise, social interaction, medical care, personal hygiene, and shelter.

Elder neglect may not always be intentional and in many cases is the result of caregivers or family members not having the means to provide proper care for the elderly loved ones. That said, there are many examples of this type of abuse happening with intent. In any case, it should be defined as a caregiver failing to provide correct care.


For older adults that do not rely on a caregiver, it is entirely possible for self-neglect to occur. This happens when the senior does not, cannot, or refuses to provide themselves with the proper care, for one of a variety of reasons.

In a similar way to neglect by another person, self-neglect can mean that the person does not receive proper food, shelter, clothing, medication, and various other basic needs. This is commonly seen by medical professionals and usually results in the older person suffering health-related problems as a direct effect.

Recognizing the Signs of Elder Abuse & Neglect

People who are being abused may not always admit that this is the case. For many older adults, there is a significant amount of fear and shame associated with the abuse. For this reason, it is essential for family and friends to pay close attention to potential signs of elder abuse and neglect. Even within your community, you may keep an eye on elderly members and stay vigilant to the possibility of a problem.

A lot of seniors may be worried about making a fuss and may withdraw into themselves, denying that there is a problem. When confronted about signs and changes in their behavior, they may make excuses for these. It is important not to wait around if you suspect abuse of an elderly person. Doing this may leave them exposed to further abuse, which could be tackled immediately.

Physical Abuse

Signs of physical abuse may include:

  • Bruising
  • Fractures or broken bones
  • Burns or scalds
  • Wounds
  • Untreated injuries
  • Broken belongings such as eye glasses that suggest the person has been attacked or restrained
  • Suffering many ‘accidents’

Psychological Abuse

Signs of psychological abuse may include:

  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Appearing frightened or jumpy
  • Unusual interactions with a caregiver
  • The caregiver may refuse to let the older adult speak for themselves
  • Refusing to openly speak about things
  • Depression, anxiety or other character changes

Financial Abuse

Signs of financial abuse may include:

  • Rent arrears, eviction notices or other debts
  • Less money than usual
  • Personal belongings going missing without explanation
  • Unusual financial activity on a bank account
  • Changes to a will

Sexual Abuse

Signs of sexual abuse may include:

  • Physical injuries
  • Sudden onset of STIs or urinary tract infections
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people


Signs of neglect may include:

  • Appearing unkempt
  • Not being bathed or kept clean
  • Dirty clothing
  • Not having regular social contact
  • Home in disrepair or looking unkempt
  • Not attending medical appointments
  • Developing conditions that could be avoided such as bedsores


Signs of self-neglect may include:

  • Lack of social contact
  • Appearing dirty or unkempt
  • Clothing not being kept clean
  • Not attending regular medical appointments

What are the Reasons for Elder Neglect & Abuse?

Stopping senior abuse

Finding out the reasons why elder neglect and abuse occurs can bring us a good way towards preventing it. In some cases, the abuse or neglect is carried out with intent however, there are also times that it may happen without any malice.

Domestic Violence

If an elder has been in an ongoing abusive relationship, this can lead to elder abuse. This may be at the hands of a spouse, family member, or friend but typically occurs when this type of violence has been happening for many years.

On the other hand, there are some situations where the tables may turn. For example, if a wife has suffered violence and abuse from her husband for a long period of time, once his health fails, she may then begin to abuse him out of revenge. This is relatively common and isn’t only limited to relationships between partners.

Sometimes, adult children who were abused, neglected, or otherwise mistreated by their parents or other older relatives may then turn their anger on this family member as they age. In these cases, it is important that the adult children receive the correct support to allow them to correctly care for their older relatives.

Financial Problems

There are a lot of situations in which seniors find themselves a victim of abuse as a result of financial issues. This is very common in households where there are several generations, and the financial burden becomes too much for the younger generations. Their frustration about these issues may then be taken out on their elders.

Moreover, if an abuser notices the opportunity to take advantage of an older person’s finances after events such as becoming widowed and not understanding how finances work, they may take this.

Abuse and neglect may also occur when a family member or caregiver relies on the older person for financial support.

Inability to Cope

When an older person loses their independence as a result of physical or mental health problems, the responsibility of care often falls on family and friends. This can be a difficult time, and individuals who previously lived a free life are now left with the care and responsibility of their loved one.

While many people enter into a caregiver role with nothing but good intentions, the resulting stress can often come out in unwanted and negative behaviors. While some people may intentionally neglect or abuse an elder because of stress or anger, there are many passive abusers that do so without realizing what is happening.

It may be the case that a son or daughter simply cannot find the time to visit their older parent who requires care and so this falls to the bottom of their priority list. Meanwhile, the older adult is left to fend for themselves, but simply cannot cope with day-to-day tasks. Likely, they do not want to make a fuss and so will not ask for further help for fear of becoming a burden.

Mental Illness & Addiction

The responsibility of caring for an older relative or friend is difficult enough for people who are considered to be in good mental health. However, when this responsibility is coupled with mental health issues or problems with addiction, things can become incredibly trying for the caregiver, who may then take out their difficulties and stress on the senior.

Social Isolation

When a family is isolated from society, this can be stressful and upsetting in itself. However, this is also a serious risk factor for elder neglect and abuse as it provides a reason that the abuse can be kept secret.

The stress of having to take care of an elderly relative can take an even greater toll when the caregiver does not have an outlet or someone to talk to. As a direct result of this, stress levels may build and anger may be taken out on the older person.

How to Prevent Elder Neglect & Abuse

Many older adults are unable to protect themselves and in an abusive situation may be too scared to ask for help. However, there are things that we can all do to try and prevent elder neglect and abuse.

  • Most importantly, if you suspect elder abuse and neglect, it is your responsibility to report this to the relevant authority whether this be the police, medical professionals, social services, or anyone else. This is the first step in ensuring that abusers are aware that a zero-tolerance stance to abuse will be taken which may act as a deterrent.
  • Remain open and honest about elder abuse and its effects. Where caregivers are taking on responsibility for their elders, be sure to keep communication open and ensure that adequate support is in place to avoid a build-up of stress.
  • Isolation can play a huge role in elder abuse and neglect, so it is important to ensure that the senior members of our community are protected against this. Regular visits and phone calls are a great place to start.
  • It is vital that we all educate ourselves on the difference between the aging process and signs that abuse may be taking place.
  • The media is an important resource for us all, and so playing an active role in spreading the word about elder abuse through the media is important for all of us. You might approach a local radio station, TV station, or newspaper and encourage them to cover the subject. Social media campaigns are also incredibly effective at raising awareness so consider joining an existing campaign or even creating one of your own.
  • It is also imperative that financial abuse does not go unnoticed, and speaking with local banks about closer monitoring of the accounts of their older customers is a great way to reduce the risk of this type of abuse.
  • If there is a local program that allows you to volunteer to befriend an older person, this is something certainly worth considering.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Senior Abuse or Neglect?

If you suspect that an older friend, family member, or someone in your community is being abused, it is vital that you act quickly. Leaving the situation until you have more concrete evidence could mean that the person is susceptible to further abuse or neglect.

It can be difficult and potentially upsetting but you should respond appropriately with the safety of the elder person in mind. If you feel that the person is in immediate danger, your first port of call should be to contact the police on 911, who will attend the scene as quickly as possible.

In the case of emergencies or immediate danger, you may also contact the National Adult Protective Services Association, which has local departments in all states. You can find details of this on their website.

Furthermore, there is the National Long Term Care Ombudsman where you can lodge a complaint should the older person be suffering abuse at the hands of staff in a long-term care living facility. Again, you will need to contact your state department.

For physical abuse, you may need to escort the elder to the hospital to obtain medical assistance. Moreover, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline using this link to their website.

Useful Organizations That Can Help

While elder abuse and neglect are a significant problem in communities all across the United States, there are also plenty of organizations that can help. If you suspect that an older person you know is being abused, the following organizations will be able to provide you with appropriate assistance.

National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA)

NAPSA is a non-profit group that operates in all 50 states. They offer realistic problem solving for all issues relating to adult care. Upon contacting the organization, an assessment will take place, and if abuse or neglect is a concern, an APS worker will be paired with the older adult to offer support. There are a variety of services and support available and these will be given according to the needs of any individual.

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA)

The NCEA provides a range of services relating to elder abuse and has been in operation since 1988. The organization performs research into the area as well as offering tools and strategies for seniors and their caregivers. They work closely with NAPSA and also have several educational resources regarding elder abuse.

National Elder Fraud Hotline

The National Elder Fraud Hotline provides services and support for people over the age of 60 who may be victims of financial fraud. The service cannot make investigations but can point people in the direction of agencies who can act on their behalf.

National Domestic Violence Hotline

If you suspect or are a victim of domestic abuse, then the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers free 24/7 support. When you call the hotline, you will be connected with a fully trained person who will ensure your or the individual’s safety before allowing you to talk about the situation. They will offer practical solutions and advice that is tailored to the specific situation.

The hotline also provides support for people who identify as an abuser and can offer support to encourage more positive behavior. Callers are not judged and will always be met with a caring and supportive ear.

National Long Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center (NORC)

NORC is a service that advocates care homes, nursing homes, and other types of assisted living facilities. You will be able to obtain advice on how to find the right facility, as well as assistance with any problems. If you or a family member has suffered abuse from any such facility, the NORC will be able to provide you with support and direction.

The ombudsman will provide complaint resolution and is a service that is available in all 50 of the United States.

National Association of Medicaid Fraud Control Units (NAMFCU)

If you or a family member has been a victim of Medicaid fraud, whether this is an exaggeration or services or charges for services that have not been received, the NAMFCU is an organization that can help. The association aims to deter practitioners from committing this type of fraud as well as punishing those who do.

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