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What You Should Know About Elder Abuse: Protecting Our Future Selves

Portrait of pensive older woman

By Karen A. Roberto, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Aging)

Mrs. A was in her early 70s and lived independently until she was severely injured in a car accident. Unable to live alone upon her release from the hospital she stayed with her daughter who settled her in an extra room in her cold basement. Weak and unable to climb the stairs, her daughter ignored her, fed her irregularly, and left her alone for long periods of time. One day a friend unexpectedly came by to see Mrs. A. and brought her the mail. Mrs. A was shocked to discover that her daughter had opened charge accounts in her name, amassed large bills, and drained her bank account.

You may never have encountered an older adult like Mrs. A and even if you have, you probably are not aware of it. Yet elder abuse is regrettably common; 1 to 2 million older Americans of all ages, genders, races, incomes, and cultures are abused yearly.

We use terms like “elder mistreatment”, “elder abuse”, and “elder maltreatment” interchangeably to describe abuse in late life. What these terms share in common is the recognition that:

  1. there are various forms of elder abuse,

  2. cases of elder abuse frequently involve more than one type of abuse (referred to as polyvictimization), and

  3. abuse causes harm or loss to older victims.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), there are five common types of elder abuse, which threaten the health, safety, dignity, and overall well-being of far too many older Americans.Type of AbuseDefinitionExamplesPhysicalUse of physical force that may result in bodily injury, physical pain, or impairmentHitting; slapping; pushing; shoving; kicking; pinching; burning; biting; beatings; restraining with ropes or chainsSexualNon-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly personUnwanted touching; making the person look at pornography; forcing sexual contact with a third party; coerced nudity; unwanted sexualized behavior; rape; sodomyEmotional or PsychologicalInfliction of anguish, pain or distress through verbal or non-verbal actsName calling; yelling, swearing, insulting, disrespectful, or threatening comments; threats;   intimidation; isolating the person from othersFinancialIllegal or improper use of an elder’s funds, property, or assetsMisuse of funds; taking money under false pretenses; forgery; forced property transfers; purchasing expensive items with the older person’s money without that person’s knowledge or permission; denying the older person access to his or her own funds; embezzlement; Internet scams; unlawful taking of possessions; stealing medicationsNeglect or AbandonmentRefusal, or failure, to fulfill any part of a person’s obligations or caregiving duties to an elderly adult; may be intention or unintentionalWithholding appropriate attention; failure to provide food, water, clothing, medications, and assistance with activities of daily living; failing to meet the physical, social, or emotional needs of the older person

As you can see, Mrs. A’s daughter subjected her to three of these types of elder abuse.

Why is Elder Abuse a Largely Hidden Problem?

Elder abuse often occurs out of the public’s eye.

  1. It is more prevalent in private settings than in nursing homes, with most abuse taking place in the older adult’s home or like in Mrs. A’s case, in the home of a relative.

  2. Perpetrators are usually family members (spouses or intimate partners, children, grandchildren) or others who have gained the trust of older adults (paid caregivers, service providers, guardians, lawyers, and investment counselors).

  3. Outsiders often perceive these alleged perpetrators as supporting older adults rather than individuals causing them harm.

Why Don’t Older Adults and Others Report Abuse?

Older victims are often reluctant to report abuse because they feel ashamed or embarrassed to find themselves in such a situation. They may feel they are to blame and fear that telling someone about the abuse will make it worse. Some are in denial that the abuse is occurring or are even unaware that what they are experiencing is abuse. Older adults with dementia may lack the ability to report their mistreatment and because of their memory impairments, others may not believe them.

Underreporting of elder abuse also occurs because individuals, families, and communities:

  1. lack awareness about elder abuse

  2. are reluctant to recognize elder abuse in their own family or community

  3. hesitate to get involved in such a difficult issue, particularly when they do not have a quick remedy for such harmful situations.

If you suspect an older adult is a victim of abuse, contact the Adult Protective Services (APS) agency in the state where they reside.

What Can You Do to Raise Awareness About Elder Abuse? 

Elder abuse is a global social issue affecting the health and human rights of older persons around the world. June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Take the opportunity to join forces with individuals and organizations worldwide to promote a better understanding of the abuse of older persons. Find tools and tips for taking action here.

The actions you take, no matter how small or large, will help pave the way to preventing and eradicating elder abuse and just may save your life one day.

Additional Resources about Elder Abuse:


Karen A. Roberto, PhD, is a professor and director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. She has conducted a number of studies on elder abuse and serves as a member of the APA Committee on Aging.

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