Types Of Elder Abuse: How To Identify The Maltreatment Of Elders And Find Resources

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Older individuals can be vulnerable to various types of abuse, including emotional abuse and neglect. If you suspect that an older adult you know is being abused in any way or you are an older person being abused, there are steps you can take to get support, love, and care.

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How does elder abuse occur?

In later life, many older adults may lose their ability to speak out, defend themselves, or recognize abuse due to physical or mental impairments. However, while they may not be able to verbalize that they’re feeling neglected or abused, it doesn’t mean they’re not affected.

Abuse can also occur in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. According to studies, elder abuse usually occurs through contact with a trusted adult. Older people can also hurt themselves by neglecting their care, such as not taking their medications, not tending to their hygiene, diet, or exercise regimes, and not following up with their physician appointments. Neglect may occur if no one is caring for this individual. 

Regardless of who is responsible for the abuse or why it’s happening, learning more about the various types of elder abuse and how you can best address it can be essential.

The seven forms of elder abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) reports that there are seven different types of elder abuse, including:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Psychological or emotional abuse
  4. Neglect
  5. Abandonment
  6. Financial abuse
  7. Self-neglect

Elder abuse occurs when someone harms an elderly person or wields power over them, placing them at serious risk of harm. The abuse of older adults can cause debilitating pain, physical injuries, and sometimes death. The NCEA also states neglect is the most common type of elder abuse.

Physical elder abuse

Physical abuse against older adults occurs when someone uses intentional force against an elder that causes physical harm to them. The abuse may hurt them or cause death. If you visit a loved one and find evidence of broken bones, sprains, bruises, burns, or dislocated joints, the elder may be a survivor of elder abuse, especially if there are repeated incidences. 

It’s common for elderly individuals to lose their hair as they age but look for signs that someone has pulled their hair out. Tooth loss is also common among senior adults when it occurs naturally. However, if you notice signs of hits or slaps to the face, teeth may have fallen out due to abuse.

If you or someone else is being abused, in addition to physical signs, look for patterns of the same type of injuries or repeated hospitalizations for similar injuries. Pay attention to whether the injury explanation makes sense and whether the injury was attended to right away. For example, if the senior has been taken to different emergency rooms after being injured, it could be a sign that they’re being physically abused and that the perpetrator doesn’t want to get caught. 

Survivors of physical abuse may show signs of discomfort or fear around specific individuals, potentially indicating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, they may withdraw from activities or not want to socialize if they’re physically abused.

Sexual abuse

Various illnesses and disabilities may prevent older adults from consenting to sexual acts. Any forced, coerced, unwanted, or non-consensual sexual interactions with another adult constitute sexual abuse. People living with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other disabilities may not be able to tell someone about sexual abuse, which can make them vulnerable.

If you’re concerned about sexual abuse towards an elder, be aware of bleeding from the anus or genitals, bruising around the genitals or thighs, unexplained sexually transmitted diseases, pain in the genital area or buttocks, torn or bloody underwear, or pelvic injuries. 

An older adult with difficulty walking or sitting that can’t otherwise be explained could be due to elder abuse of a sexual nature. It’s also common for elderly survivors of sexual abuse to have mental health problems like panic attacks, social withdrawal, emotional withdrawal, or suicide attempts.

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Emotional and psychological abuse

Emotional and psychological abuse of older adults might be more challenging to detect. This type of elder abuse is characterized by intentional acts that inflict mental anguish, fear, or unfair power dynamics toward an elder. Survivors of emotional or psychological abuse may not have physical scars, but they may bear the mental scars of humiliation, isolation, insults, name-calling, and being terrorized or threatened. Withholding resources from an elder is another form of emotional or psychological abuse.

If an older adult is depressed, withdrawn, scared, or unusually moody, it might indicate a mental health concern or emotional abuse. If an individual who spends a lot of time with this older adult tries to blame the elder’s behavior on “paranoia,” “aging,” or “confusion,” it could also be a sign that they’re trying to take the blame away from themselves. 

Elder neglect

When a caregiver doesn’t meet an elder’s needs, and the elder gets injured or otherwise harmed, it may constitute elder neglect. Elder neglect isn’t an oversight. It comes from intentional carelessness or lack of regard for an elder’s well-being.

The National Center on Elder Abuse states that elder neglect was the most common type of elder abuse in at least one study. Neglect ranked closely behind other types of elder abuse in other studies.

Older adults need adequate shelter and to have their basic daily living activities tended to. They should have appropriate clothing and help with hygiene if needed. They should also be safe and feel safe in their environment. Incidences of neglect may be high in some nursing homes or where caregivers are exhausted and overworked. Treating compassion fatigue may be essential for caregivers to reduce the risk of neglect. 

Elder abandonment

NCEA defines elder abandonment as the intentional deserting of an elder who can’t care for themselves. For example, former caretakers may leave someone at a hospital, nursing home, or another care facility without arranging future visits and alternate care.

Survivors of elder abandonment may feel confused, scared, lost, depressed, and numb. They might become malnourished, dehydrated, or depressed. Pain and confusion over the loss can worsen physical pain from existing chronic conditions. 

Financial elder abuse

The National Council on Aging states that seniors are more likely to report financial abuse than other types of elder abuse.

Elder financial abuse can occur when a trusted individual takes advantage of an elder by abusing their authority over finances or personal belongings. Forms of financial abuse can include the following:

  • Stealing their belongings or property
  • Showing an unusual interest in how the elder’s money is being spent
  • Withdrawing money without accountability or authority 
  • Redirecting mail, bills, or notices to the perpetrator’s home 

Seniors who can’t manage their own finances and are put under a conservatorship or guardianship agreement are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse.

Financial abuse can also occur through online or phone scams. People may take advantage of the older individual’s difficulty with technology, memory, or other symptoms to convince them to send large amounts of money online or buy gift cards in a store. Scammers sometimes tell older adults they won a prize or that someone in the family is in danger. 

Elder self-neglect

Self-neglect may also occur, although it isn’t a form of abuse perpetrated by someone else. Self-neglect may happen when older adults struggle to care for their basic daily needs. They might not ask for help, and others might not notice that they need it. It can be challenging for elders to admit that they are beginning to lose their independence. 

Self-neglect can be as dangerous as other types of elder abuse. It may result in dehydration, malnutrition, untreated medical conditions, or poor hygiene. The neglected elderly individual may live in unsafe or unsanitary physical living conditions. Some people might lack appropriate clothing or outerwear, such as leaving the house in their pajamas or without a coat. They may also be unable to keep up with medical aids like eyeglasses, hearing aids, or dentures due to a lack of transportation or support. 

Resources for older adults (50-60+)

If you’re an older adult facing hardships, you’re not alone. Below are a few resources you can look into for support in various areas of living: 

  • Meals On Wheels: A program offering meals, companionship, and safety checks for seniors over 60 with diminished mobility
  • Medicare Interactive: An organization to help older adults discover their eligibility for Medicare services 
  • 211.org: Call 211 to find housing, food, and financial resources in your local area 
  • AARP Job Opportunities: An organization that helps connect older adults with work 
  • Administration for Community Living (ACL): An organization helping older adults and caregivers find services in their community for housing and caregiving
  • Alzheimers.gov: A website dedicated to helping families and older adults understand dementia and Alzheimer’s 

You can find more resources organized by category through the National Library Service (NLS) website. 

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Are you a survivor of elder abuse?

Counseling options 

Caring for an aging friend or relative can be challenging, and you may face emotional decisions or situations. If you are an older adult, you might struggle with memory loss, changes in ability, or vulnerability to unsafe power dynamics. It may be beneficial for all parties involved to consider counseling during difficult times. In addition, if you are an older adult who struggles with mobility, you can try an online therapy platform like BetterHelp.

Studies show that online therapy can significantly reduce the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, specific phobias, and more. Online therapy can involve cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other modalities, which are proven effective and fast-acting in some cases. If you’re worried about the price of therapy, note that online therapy is more cost-effective than in-person therapy. 

Takeaway

Elder abuse is a serious and common concern. If you believe you or someone you love is facing abuse, reach out to the hotline at the beginning of this article. If you’re a survivor of abuse or looking for support as a caregiver, you can also reach out to a therapist in your area or online for long-term guidance.

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