Elder Abuse: Know the Signs

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 age 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.

Types of Elder Abuse

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 him to a bed or wheelchair, locking him in a room, or giving him drugs his 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 his 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 his 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 him, yells at him, calls him names or talks down to him, ignores him over and over, and controls what he does, who he sees, and where he goes.


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

  • Act withdrawn or frightened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

Financial abuse is when an older person's money or property are threatened. Someone might use his credit cards or bank accounts without his permission, forge signatures, or force him 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 he 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 him
  • 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 him enough food, water, clothing, housing, and medications or not helping him bathe, dress, or pay the bills. Abandoning the person completely is also a type of abuse. Sometimes a caregiver knows he’s neglecting the person, but others may not know they’re doing anything wrong.

If an older person isn’t getting the care he needs, you may notice:

What You Can Do

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 he won't answer your questions, it’s possible that he is being abused. If he tells you someone’s hurting him or you suspect he’s in immediate danger, call 911.

If the problem isn’t urgent, contact Adult Protective Services in the state where he lives. 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 he’s safe.

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

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 27, 2019



CDC: "Elder Abuse: Definitions," “Understanding Elder Abuse Fact Sheet.”

National Council on Aging: "Elder Abuse Facts."

American Psychological Association: "Elder Abuse and Neglect: In Search for Solutions."

National Institute on Aging: "Elder Abuse."

Health in Aging: "Preventing Elder Abuse and Neglect in Older Adults."

National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse: "What Is Elder Abuse?" "Sexual Abuse," "Financial Abuse," "Physical Abuse," "Psychological Abuse," "Neglect and Self-Neglect."

National Institute of Justice: "Elder Abuse."

Administration on Aging: "What Is Elder Abuse," "What If I Suspect Abuse, Neglect or Exploitation?"

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.