Elder Abuse: Know the Signs

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 21, 2023
4 min read

When most people get older, they have to rely more on others to help take care of themselves. That brings a greater chance someone will mistreat them or take advantage of them. That’s called elder abuse.

Elder abuse is when someone harms or neglects a person aged 60 or older. It can happen to anyone. It can come from a caregiver, a family member, or a neighbor. It can take place in the older person’s home, the home of a relative, or in an assisted living or nursing facility.

Older people living with abuse may be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it. But if you keep your eyes open and know what to look for, you can help make sure your friends and loved ones stay safe.

It can happen in different ways:

Physical abuse is any action that causes injury or bodily harm. It can include hitting, shoving, kicking, or burning an older person, tying them to a bed or wheelchair, locking them in a room, or giving them drugs their doctor hasn’t prescribed.

Often this kind of abuse shows up as visible injuries. But there may be other signals, including:

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruises, and bleeding
  • Sprained or broken bones
  • Injuries that happen over and over
  • The person doesn’t want to see a doctor about their wounds

Sexual abuse is when an older person is forced to have sexual contact with another person. It can range from making the person watch pornography or take off their clothes to inappropriate touching and rape.

There may be physical signs as well as those you can’t see. They include:

Psychological abuse is any action that hurts a person emotionally. It can happen when someone threatens them, yells at them, calls their names or talks down to them, ignores them over and over, and controls what they do, who they see, and where they go.

Watch for signs of this kind of abuse in your loved one’s actions or their relationships with you and others. They might:

  • Act withdrawn or frightened
  • Have changes in their behavior that you can’t explain
  • Rock back and forth, suck, or mumble to themselves
  • Be depressed, confused, or lose interest in things they enjoyed
  • Have trouble sleeping

Financial abuse is when an older person's money or property are threatened. Someone might use their credit cards or bank accounts without their permission, forge signatures, or force them to change a legal document like a will or power of attorney.

It can also include charging too much for home repair or medical care or billing for a service that they never received. People or groups who ask for donations for fake charities are also doing this.

Signs may include:

  • Withdrawals from bank accounts that your loved one can’t explain
  • A new "friend" who may be taking financial advantage of them
  • Legal documents that have been changed or disappeared
  • Missing financial statements
  • Unpaid bills, utilities that are shut off, or threats of eviction
  • Signatures that seem to be forged

Neglect happens when caregivers don’t tend to an older person’s needs. It can mean not giving them enough food, water, clothing, housing, and medications or not helping them bathe, dress, or pay the bills. Abandoning the person completely is also a type of abuse. Sometimes caregivers know they are neglecting the person, but others may not know they’re doing anything wrong.

If an older person isn’t getting the care they need, you may notice:

If you see any of these signs in a loved one, friend, or neighbor, speak up right away. It could save the person’s life.

There are groups that can step in to help older people who are in danger.

First, try talking privately with the person you suspect is in trouble. You can start by saying you think something is wrong and you want to help. If they won't answer your questions, it’s possible that they are being abused. If they tell you someone’s hurting them or you suspect they are in immediate danger, call 911.

If the problem isn’t urgent, contact Adult Protective Services in the state where they live. You don’t need proof of the abuse to make the call. The agency will send someone to the person's home to check out the report and, if necessary, take steps to make sure they are safe.

There are also national, state, and local agencies that can help older people with emotional, legal, and financial problems.