What are the Most Common Types of Elder Abuse? (And How to Recognize Them)

The most common types of elder abuse are physical, psychological, sexual, financial, neglect, and self-neglect. Learn how to recognize the signs and red flags of elder abuse.

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional
elderly man being abused verbally by his caregiver
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As people get older, it is normal to rely on others for assistance and company.

Elders might need help from their family members or neighbors to carry out daily tasks. Sometimes, they move to an assisted living facility or nursing home where they can rely on nursing and medical staff to care for them.

Unfortunately, in some cases, someone might use this situation to take advantage of the senior.

This guide will teach you about the most common types of elder abuse. That way, you’ll know the red flags and signs to watch for.

Why Are The Elderly Such Easy Targets?

Older adults can be seen as easy victims.

Seniors can suffer from many illnesses which can affect both their physical abilities and cognitive skills. Physical disease leaves them frail. Cognitive disorders cause confusion. An inability to care for themselves is the main factor that leads to elder abuse.

Also, elderly people spend a lot of time alone. If an abuser knows or believes that a senior doesn’t have many people looking out for them, they may find it easier to take advantage of them.

In many cases, these problems leave the older people defenseless.

Where Can Elder Abuse Happen?

Elder abuse can happen anywhere.

But, the most common places are the elder’s own home, the home of their adult children, in a nursing home, an assisted living center, or in a senior care facility.

ALSO READ: How to Label Clothing for Nursing Homes

What are the Most Common Types of Elder Abuse and Neglect?

Types of elder abuse include:

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when physical force is used to intentionally harm the senior.

Obvious examples are hitting, slapping, and burning. Less obvious examples could be restraining an elderly person to their bed or wheelchair. Giving them too much or not enough medication is another.

Signs of physical abuse can include:

  • anxiety
  • bruises
  • scratches
  • burns
  • broken bones
  • limited mobility
  • accidents
  • repetitive injuries that don’t have a plausible explanation.

If this abuse is caused by a caregiver, they will usually refuse medical care for the senior. They often try to keep them from getting help.

Older adults might also feel too ashamed or afraid to seek help on their own. If they do try to get help, the abuser might offer excuses. They often tell a different story that makes the older adult seem mixed up or confused.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is any action that causes emotional distress in a senior.

Some examples are threats, intimidation, or humiliation directed at the senior. Other possibilities are ignoring the elder, withholding affection, or calling them names. Often, the abuser will isolate the elder from their loved ones.

Signs of psychological abuse can include:

  • anxiety
  • anger
  • fear
  • agitation
  • becoming withdrawn
  • depressed
  • unresponsive
  • refusing to talk to other people or attend activities which they previously enjoyed.

Elders suffering from this type of abuse are often kept from calling their loved ones by their abuser. In some cases, both the abuser and the senior make excuses to avoid interacting with others.

elderly man being yelled at by his nurse
Physically harming seniors is a type of elder abuse.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse unfortunately happens to elders, too.

This type of elder abuse comes from two different situations. First is when someone is forced to participate in acts of a sexual nature against their will. The other situations is when they are unable to give consent. For example, in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The usual example is forcing them to perform physical sex acts. But other examples are making the elder watch others undress, engage in sex, fondling, or engaging in sexual talk. Another possibility is forcing them to watch pornography.

Signs of sexual abuse can include:

  • torn or bloody clothes and underwear
  • bruises around the breasts or genital area
  • symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease
  • bleeding from the genitals or anus
  • anxiety or avoidance of physical contact
  • difficulty standing or walking
  • withdrawn behavior
  • inappropriate comments by the abuser.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is when an older person’s money or property are used without their permission.

For example, using their debit or credit cards and bank accounts without their approval or stealing cash or personal items. Others are forcing or forging their signature on wills, legal documents, or financial paperwork. Less common examples are charging excessive amounts for work or asking for donations for fake charities.

Signs of financial abuse may include:

  • withdrawals or debts in your loved one’s name that they can’t explain,
  • missing financial statements,
  • changes in legal documents,
  • repeated inquiries from the bank about unusual bank transactions,
  • unpaid bills or utilities,
  • risk of eviction,
  • missing cash or valuables, etc.

In these cases, the abuser will usually become very protective of the abused senior’s finances. Often they won’t let anyone else to manage their funds or legal documents.

Elder Neglect

Elder neglect is probably the most common, yet most under reported type of elder abuse. It occurs when a caregiver doesn’t tend to the senior’s needs.

Examples include not giving them enough food or water, not helping them bathe, or leaving them unattended. Another common example is failing to provide essential items such as clothing or medication.

Elder neglect can be intentional or unintentional. It comes from a lack of knowledge or denial that the older person needs as much help as they really do.

Signs of neglect can include

  • becoming messy or unclean,
  • getting thinner, looking dehydrated,
  • developing bedsores,
  • missing medical aids such as hearing aids, walkers, dentures, etc.
senior woman refusing to take her medicine out of self neglect
Refusing to take their medicine is a sign of self neglect.

Self Neglect

Self-neglect happens when the elder stops taking care of their own needs. This becomes noticeable with bad personal hygiene, not eating or drinking enough water, letting their surroundings become dirty, not paying bills, etc.

This can be the result of the elder’s inability to care for themselves due to physical or cognitive difficulties. Other causes are depression, dementia, feeling ashamed about needing help, or fear of losing their independence.

Signs of self-neglect can be very similar to those of elder neglect. In cases of self-neglect, the senior can be defensive about their ability to care for themselves.

How to Recognize Elder Abuse and Neglect

Abuser Red Flags

The abuser might display warning signs.

For example, they might not allow the senior to be alone with other people. They could have a history of substance abuse, a criminal record, or even mental illness. You could see them show anger or indifference towards the elder.

Watch for stories that contradict those told by the senior, complaints about the elder as a burden, flirting with the elder, or withholding affection. They might also argue with the elder frequently.

Elder Red Flags

Elder abuse has hefty consequences. Keep a look out for the signs above.

The senior who has been abused can suffer from stress, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, depression, cognitive deterioration, and dementia. Physical red flags can include malnutrition, bedsores, infections, and even death.

Risk Factors for Elder Abuse

There are certain risk factors that increase the chance of elder abuse.

Some of these factors include

  • dependence on the caregiver
  • family dysfunction
  • a history of family violence
  • isolation
  • living in a remote community
  • mental illness or dementia
  • poor awareness of one’s rights
  • illiteracy

However, an elder can be abused even if they don’t experience any of these risk factors.

Our senior citizens deserve to cared for in a loving, supportive environment.

Steps to Help Prevent Elder Abuse

There are certain steps you can take to prevent your loved one being abused.

Visit and Call Often – Without Warning

If they live with a caregiver, in a nursing home, or other senior care facility, make sure you visit and call as often as possible. This will help the senior see you as a trustworthy confidante. It also lets the people who surround them will know that there are people looking out for them.

When you visit them, check their surroundings and make sure they are clean and tidy. Also, make sure your loved one doesn’t display any signs of elder abuse.

If they ever seem anxious, try to talk to them in private.

Watch Their Financial and Bank Accounts

Ask to check their bank accounts and financial statements to avoid financial abuse. If possible, have their statements and records sent directly to their POA or guardian.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

If you are a primary caregiver to a senior, make sure to ask for help in order to avoid burnout and unintentional neglect.

Caring for an elder, especially if they suffer from disabilities, can take a huge toll on anyone. Having a strong support network around you will help you avoid feeling overexerted.

Ask family members or neighbors for help, join support groups or online forums, read blogs by caregivers, and make sure to spend time on yourself.

If someone close to you is the primary caregiver, offer help in order to let them have breaks from caring for the senior.

What To Do If You Suspect Abuse of a Senior?

If you suspect your elderly loved one is being abused by someone else, talk to them first.

Express your belief that something has happened to them. Let them know that you won’t judge them and that the abuse isn’t their fault. Creating a safe and warm relationship will make it easier for them to tell you what has happened.

If you notice signs of abuse in a senior who is no longer able to communicate well or has memory disorders, talk to the people who surround them to gather more information. If necessary, make new living or care arrangements for them.

You can report your suspicions to Adult Protective Services, too. You don’t need to have proof of the abuse in order to ask for help – just a suspicion. One of their agents will visit your loved one to follow up on the report, look for signs of abuse, and take any preventive or corrective measures that might be necessary.

>>ALSO READ: Financial Exploitation of the Elderly by Family Members<<

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you believe that a senior might be in immediate danger, don’t hesitate to call 911. Even if the first responders who arrive on the scene don’t find anything wrong, it is always better to err on the side of caution.


Having your loved one suffer from any type of elder abuse is typically your worst nightmare when others are caring for them.

Depending on their physical and mental condition, it can be difficult for them to communicate the fact that they are being abused. However, each type of elder abuse has certain tell-tale signs that can help you prevent or report these incidents and keep your elderly loved one safe.

Elder Abuse Resources

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Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional

Scott Grant has spent more than 20 years serving seniors and the elderly in the home medical equipment industry. He has worked as a manufacturer's rep for the top medical equipment companies and a custom wheelchair specialist at a durable medical equipment (DME) provider in WV. He is father to 4 beautiful daughters and has three terrific grandkids. When not promoting better living for older adults, he enjoys outdoor activities including hiking and kayaking and early morning runs.

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