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Elder abuse

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If you suspect elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation, contact adult protective services, or call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.

If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or the local police for immediate help.

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Elder abuse is when an older person is harmed or put at serious risk of harm. It includes many types of abuse, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. It also includes neglect and taking advantage of an older person.

Elder abuse is a very serious problem in the United States. Some older adults may be at greater risk of abuse because they live alone or don't get out much. Also, some older adults are easily confused, which also puts them at risk. Abuse can occur in your home, in a nursing home, or in public.

Caregivers who are unable to cope with the demands of caring for an older adult might release some of this stress by taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable, such as an older adult.

Abusers may be:

  • Professional caregivers
  • Relatives
  • Spouses
  • Partners
  • Doctors
  • Lawyers
  • Bankers
  • Accountants
  • Strangers

If you or someone you know has been the victim of elder abuse, seek help from family, friends, or community organizations. Reach out for support or counseling. Talk to a doctor or other health care professional, especially if you have been physically hurt.

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Types and signs of elder abuse

Elder abuse comes in many forms. The chart below explains the different types and signs of elder abuse.

Types and signs of elder abuse
Type of elder abuseSigns
Physical abuse – Hitting, slapping, beating, pushing, shoving, kicking, pinching, and burning
  • Bruises, black eyes
  • Marks on body like welts, cuts, and open wounds
  • Sprains, dislocations (like a shoulder), or broken bones
  • Injuries that are healing but were never treated
  • Rope marks or burns on hands and feet (could mean an elder has been tied up or restrained)
  • Broken eyeglasses or frames
  • Sudden change in behavior
  • Not wanting to be alone with caregiver
  • Caregiver not letting anyone visit the elder alone
  • Running out of prescription medicine too quickly or having prescription medicine that looks like it is not being taken like it should be (bottle too full)
  • The elder tells you he or she is being physically hurt
Emotional or psychological abuse – Verbal assaults, threats, intimidation, harassment, isolating elder from regular activities, family, and friends
  • Being in an upset or agitated state
  • Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to talk or interact with anyone
  • Unusual behavior like rocking, biting, or sucking (usually thought to be symptoms of dementia)
  • The elder person tells you he or she is being mistreated
Sexual assault and abuse – Any sexual contact that is not agreed to by the elder like unwanted touching and all types of sexual assault
  • Bruises on or around the breasts or genitals
  • Unexplained sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or vaginal or anal bleeding
  • Torn, stained, or bloody underwear
  • The elder person tells you he or she is sexually assaulted or raped
Neglect – Not taking proper care of an elder, including physical care (food, clothing, shelter, medicine, personal hygiene) and financial care (not paying for living arrangements, care, and other bills)
  • Poor hygiene, dehydration, malnutrition, bed sores that aren't being treated (if bedridden)
  • Health problems that aren't being treated
  • Unsafe living conditions (no heat, electricity or water, faulty wiring)
  • Poor living conditions (dirt, fleas, soiled bedding, clothes and bedding smelling like urine/feces, improper clothing, lice on the elder)
  • The elder person tells you he or she is being neglected

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Nursing home abuse

Most elder abuse occurs at home. However, a lot of abuse occurs in long-term care facilities, such as in nursing homes, out of sight of the general public.

Nursing home abuse can take any form:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Financial exploitation

The National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center External Website Policy provides advocates who can help choose a safe nursing home and resolve elder abuse complaints in a long-term care facility.

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How can elder abuse be prevented?

Older adults can take these steps to prevent abuse:

  • Be socially active and avoid spending too much time alone. Being cut off from other people can put you at a higher risk of abuse. Keep in touch with family and friends.
  • If you are not happy with the care you are getting in your home, speak up. You have a right to change. This applies to all caregivers — even family.
  • If you live in a long-term care facility and are not happy with your care, speak up. If you do not have family members who can help, contact your state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman External Website Policy. The ombudsman's purpose is to be your advocate and to help you.
  • Plan for your own financial future with a trusted person or persons. Make sure that your finances are in order. It's also important to tell family, caregivers, and doctors your health care wishes. For more information on financial and other future planning, see Planning your future.

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What family members can do

Family members and friends who are not caregivers of the older adult can help to prevent abuse by:

  • Watching for warning signs that might signal abuse (bruising, soreness, agitation, fear, refusal to speak).
  • Making sure that the older adult is eating properly and taking required medications. A weakened older adult may not be able to think clearly about the care being given.
  • Gaining trust so that the older adult allows you more oversight in financial and caretaking matters.
  • Scanning bank accounts and credit card statements for unauthorized transactions.
  • Calling and visiting as often as you are able. Keep in contact.

Many states have 24-hour toll-free numbers for receiving confidential reports of abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse can help you find services in the state where the older person lives. For help with locating elder care services, contact Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.

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Content last updated: August 12, 2010.

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