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

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As people get older, it is normal to rely on others for assistance and company. Elders usually need help from their family members or neighbors to carry out daily tasks. They might move to a senior care facility where they must rely on nursing and medical staff to care for themselves. Unfortunately, in some cases, someone might take advantage of the senior’s frailty and vulnerability to commit some type of elder abuse against them.

Seniors can suffer from many illnesses which can affect their physical abilities and cognitive skills. In many cases, this defenselessness and inability to care for themselves is the main factor that leads to elder abuse. Elderly adults can be seen as easy victims. Especially, if the abuser knows or believes that the senior doesn’t have many people looking out for them.

Having your loved one suffer from any type of elder abuse is typically your worst nightmare when others are caring for them. And, 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. That way, you can keep your elderly loved one safe.

Elder abuse can happen anywhere, but it tends to take place in the elder’s own home, in a family member’s home, in a healthcare institution, or in a senior care facility.

Types of Elder Abuse

The most common types of elder abuse include:

Physical Abuse

elderly woman looking confusedPhysical abuse is when force or physical violence is used to intentionally harm the senior. This can mean hitting, slapping, burning, restraining to a bed or wheelchair, giving excessive or insufficient medication, etc.

Signs can include:

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

If the abuser is a caregiver, they will usually refuse medical care for the senior and stop them from seeking help. Seniors might also feel too ashamed or afraid to seek help on their own. If they do, the abuser might tell a different story that contradicts the one told by the elderly person.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse refers to any action which is carried out with the intention of causing emotional distress to the senior. Examples include threatening, ignoring, humiliating, intimidating, isolating them from their loved ones, withdrawing affection, name-calling, etc.

Signs can include:

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

Elders suffering from this type of abuse might not be allowed to call their loved ones by their abuse. In some cases, both the abuser and the senior will make excuses to avoid interacting with others.

Sexual Abuse

elderly woman grieving by crying in her hands

Sexual abuse can happen to elders, too. This happens when someone is forced to participate in acts of a sexual nature against their will. It often happens when they are unable to give consent –for example, in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Examples include forcing them to perform physical sex acts or watch others engage in sex, fondling, engaging in sexual talk, undressing, forcing them to watch pornography, etc.

Signs 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
  • avoidance of physical contact
  • inappropriate comments by the abuser
  • difficulty standing or walking
  • withdrawn behavior

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse, in which an elderly person’s funds or property are used against their will or without their authorization, usually by a caregiver. This can mean using their debit or credit cards, bank accounts, forging their signature, stealing cash or personal items, identity theft, forcing them to change their will or other legal documents such as a power of attorney, charging excessive amounts for services, asking for donations for fake charities, etc.

Signs 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

In these cases, the abuser will usually become very protective of the abused senior’s finances, not allowing anyone else to manage their funds or legal documents.

Elder Neglect

senior man staring off into distance on a black backgroundElder neglect is probably the most common, yet underreported type of elder abuse. It occurs when a caregiver doesn’t tend to the senior’s needs properly. Examples include not giving them enough food or water, failing to provide essential items such as clothing or medication, not helping them bathe, leaving them unattended. Elder neglect can be intentional or unintentional, stemming from a lack of knowledge or denial that the elder 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.


Self-neglect happens when the elder stops taking care of their own needs, which can include 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, a sign of 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, refuse external help, and become withdrawn or depressed.

The abuser might also display warning signs. Examples are not allowing the senior to be alone with other people, a history of substance abuse, criminal record, or mental illness, displaying anger or indifference towards the elder, telling stories that contradict those told by the senior, regarding the elder as a burden, flirting with the elder, withholding affection, etc. They might also argue with the elder frequently.

Risk Factors and Consequences

There are certain risk factors which can 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, amongst others. However, an elder can be abused even if they don’t experience any of these risk factors.

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

Protect Your Loved One

serious senior man with adult daughter at home
Getting a parent to admit to need they help is a stressful tie for parent and child.

There are certain steps you can take to prevent your loved one being abused. If they live with a caregiver or in a senior care facility, make sure you visit and call as often as possible. This will help the senior see you as a trustworthy confidante, and 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 and that your loved one doesn’t display any signs of elder abuse. If they ever seem anxious, try to talk to them in private. Ask to check their bank accounts and financial statements to avoid financial abuse.

Avoid Burnout

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, and 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, 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.

Open Communication

If you suspect your elderly loved one is being abused by someone else, make sure to talk to them first. Express your belief that something has happened to them, and 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, and if necessary, make new living or care arrangements for them.

Report It!

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. 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.

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.

Other Resources:

Do you have any experiences with elder abuse that you would like to share? Or, other examples of the types of elder abuse? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

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