Elder abuse is a pervasive issue that affects millions of adults worldwide. According to research from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), at least 10% of adults over 65 will experience one or more acts of abuse every year. The National Council on Aging states that seniors who have been abused have an increased risk of death—that’s 300% higher than it is for those who haven’t experienced elder mistreatment.
Elder abuse can happen in several forms—awareness of each type is key in safeguarding older adults from harm. By familiarizing yourself with the warning signs of all the types of elder abuse, you’ll be better equipped to spot situations where intervention may be necessary.
Keep reading to learn more, including how to report elderly abuse if you suspect or know it’s happening to someone you love.
6 Types of Elder Abuse to Be Aware of
Contrary to what many people think, elder abuse isn’t always physical. Abuse can involve any intentional actions or neglect that causes harm. Knowing the different types of elder abuse and mistreatment will help you more easily identify when someone is being victimized.
“It’s crucial to be aware of the variety of types of abuse that can occur toward elders, as these abuses can result in serious harm physically, emotionally, and/or financially.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
1. Physical abuse
Physical abuse is the most well-known, often most obvious, form of abuse. It can involve hitting, slapping, pushing, or any other act of violence that causes pain or injury. Whether it occurs at home, in a nursing home, assisted living facility, or in any other setting, a bruise, fracture, or other bodily injury on an elderly person can be a sign of physical abuse. Spotting physical abuse quickly in older adults is critical in protecting them from further harm.
2. Emotional or psychological abuse
Verbal abuse, assaults, threats, humiliation, isolation, or manipulation that cause emotional distress are all ways someone can be emotionally or psychologically abused. While there may not be marks left or physical harm done, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as any other type of elder abuse.
3. Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse involves any non-consensual sexual contact. Elders being sexually abused might not understand the act due to cognitive impairment. They may be unable to stop it due to being weaker than their attacker, or they may be afraid to talk about it.
Caregivers who fail to provide adequate care, food, shelter, or medical attention can harm seniors. Neglect can lead to physical and emotional harm and may manifest through poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, lack of medical care, or social isolation. Ignoring the signs of elder neglect can result in serious harm or even death.
Elder abuse in the form of abandonment occurs when someone who’s assumed responsibility for the care of an aging person deserts them, which can cause abandonment trauma in the victim.
6. Financial or material exploitation
Using, misusing, or withholding an older adult’s funds, property, resources, or assets for personal gain can constitute financial abuse. Elderly financial abuse is rising, so becoming aware of red flags is paramount.
Recognizing the Signs of Elder Abuse
If you have an older person in your life, you should be able to recognize the signs of elder abuse.
“Noticing the signs of elder abuse and speaking up to protect a senior is vital, especially since many elders may be unable or too afraid to speak up for themselves. Your intervention can make all the difference in their safety and well-being.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
Warning signs of physical and sexual abuse
There are several warning signs of physical or sexual elder abuse to be aware of. Knowing the following signs can help you quickly determine if anything might be happening to a senior in your life.
Warning signs of physical abuse:
- Unexplained wounds, bruises, cuts, burns, or injuries in various phases of healing
- Frequent visits to the emergency room or doctor’s office for injuries
- Signs of restraint on wrists or ankles, such as bruises or abrasions
- Sudden changes in behavior, like increased anxiety or fearfulness
Warning signs of sexual abuse:
- Torn or stained clothing, particularly undergarments
- Genital pain, bleeding, bruising, or sexually transmitted infections
Indicators of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse of an elder can be more challenging to see, so recognizing the following indicators is essential.
- Behavioral changes: Changes in behavior patterns, like withdrawal from social activities, increased anxiety, and depression are some of the behavioral changes that may indicate emotional abuse.
- Demeaning language: Harmful language including insults, name-calling, and belittling comments toward elders are signs of emotional abuse.
- Isolation by exclusion: Cutting off social ties can be a way for an abuser to retain power over a target.
Signs of neglect and abandonment
It’s crucial you don’t ignore signs of elder neglect and abandonment, which can cause serious harm to older adults.
- Unexplained weight loss
- Poor hygiene, dirty clothing, or bedsores
- Lack of medical aids like glasses, hearing aids, or medications
- Unsafe living conditions, including lack of heat, running water, or an unsanitary environment
- Social isolation or withdrawal from activities that were once enjoyed
- Frequent arguments with caregivers or family members
- Depression, anxiety, or fearfulness
- Frequent changes in caregivers or nursing homes
- Lack of supervision or assistance in long-term care facilities
Flags for financial exploitation
Financial exploitation often flies under the radar, but it can be devastating for an older person who lives on a limited or fixed income and is being taken advantage of.
Signs of elder financial abuse include:
- Unusual bank account activity: Frequent large withdrawals or transfers at odd times.
- New loans or credit cards: Sudden appearance of new loans, lines of credit, or maxed-out credit cards.
- Mismanagement of finances: Unpaid bills, bounced checks, and poor financial management.
- Sudden changes in estate planning documents: Unexpected alterations to wills, trusts, and powers-of-attorney (POA) agreements.
- Giving away valuable possessions: Suddenly giving away personal, high-value, or sentimental belongings without explanation can be a red flag.
Symptoms of self-neglect
Self-neglect can be a bit more difficult to identify because it often occurs when a senior is transitioning from a time when they’re still able to care for themselves appropriately to when they start to need additional support and help.
Look for the following symptoms of self-neglect:
- Not bathing regularly: Watch for poor personal hygiene, unkempt appearance, and body odor.
- Running out of food: Be aware of nutritional concerns like weight loss or gain without explanation or expired or spoiled food in the home.
- Ignoring their health needs: Medical neglect, like ignoring medical advice, not taking prescribed medications, or having untreated injuries and illnesses, can be dangerous.
- Living environment is unsafe: Inadequate living conditions, like unsafe housing, hoarding behavior, and infestations by pests can be harmful.
How to Report Elder Abuse
If you suspect elder abuse, take action and report your concerns to protect the victim and ensure they receive the support and intervention they need.
Reporting elder abuse can:
- Protect the victim: Reporting suspected abuse can keep an older person safe.
- Prevent future abuse: When elder abuse is properly reported, it means others won’t experience the same mistreatment.
- Promote justice: Reporting helps hold abusers accountable for their actions.
- Raise awareness: Speaking out about elder abuse can raise public awareness and encourage others to be more aware and act.
Mandatory reporting laws may apply in certain situations, requiring professionals to report suspected elder abuse.
When and why you should report elder abuse
Depending on who the abuser is, acting quickly to report elder abuse could save the life and well-being of not just your loved one — it might save countless others.
Steps to report elder abuse
If you suspect any of the types of elder abuse discussed here, take the following steps:
- Contact local authorities: Call 911 if someone is in immediate danger or contact The National Adult Protective Services Association or law enforcement for non-emergencies.
- Gather information: Collect details about the victim, alleged abuser(s), type of abuse, signs of elder mistreatment observed, and any relevant documentation.
- Provide a detailed report: Give a clear and detailed account of your concerns, including all the information or evidence gathered in the previous step.
- Maintain confidentiality: Keep your identity confidential to protect yourself and the victim from potential retaliation by the abuser(s).
- Follow up on your report: Make sure to inquire about updates on the investigation process to ensure appropriate actions are being taken.
Professional Support for Elder Abuse Victims with Talkspace
Remember, reporting elder abuse isn’t just a moral obligation — it can be a legal one too. Don’t hesitate to take action.
If someone in your life is a victim of elder abuse, Talkspace is here to provide mental health support. Help your loved one get the help they need for any resulting trauma with online therapy at Talkspace.
- Elder Abuse Statistics. United States Department of Justice. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/file/1098056/download.
- Get the Facts on Elder Abuse. The National Council on Aging. February 23, 2021. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://ncoa.org/article/get-the-facts-on-elder-abuse.
- We support adult protective services. NAPSA. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.napsa-now.org/.