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Elder Abuse

Each year hundreds of thousands of older adults experience abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation. Abuse can happen to anyone. Victims are people of all ethnic backgrounds, genders, and social statuses. Abusers are both women and men, and may be relatives, caregivers, or “trusted others.”

In general, elder abuse is an intentional act that causes harm or an action—intentional or not—that creates a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable older adult. It includes failure by a caregiver to satisfy basic needs or to protect an elder from harm.

Types of Abuse

Though specific definitions vary by state, there are two broad categories of elder abuse: domestic and institutional. Domestic abuse is committed by someone, such as a spouse, who has a special relationship with the older adult. Institutional abuse is mistreatment that occurs in a residential facility, such as a nursing home. There are also several generally recognized forms of abuse:

  • Physical abuse: Inflicting or threatening pain or injury, or depriving one of a basic need
  • Emotional abuse: Inflicting mental pain or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts
  • Sexual abuse: Nonconsensual sexual contact or coercion to witness sexual behaviors
  • Exploitation: Illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets
  • Neglect: Failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection
  • Abandonment: Desertion by anyone who has assumed responsibility for care or custody

Unfortunately, self-neglect is another common type of mistreatment. It is the failure to perform essential self-care tasks, which can lead to illness or injury.

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Warning Signs

It is important to stay alert for signs of abuse. While a warning sign does not confirm abuse, the following indicators may point to a problem.

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities
  • A sudden change in alertness or unusual depression
  • Sudden changes in financial circumstances
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, or unusual weight loss
  • Belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by a caregiver
  • Strained or tense relationships, which may include arguments with a caregiver

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Reporting Abuse

Every citizen has a responsibility to keep vulnerable older adults safe from harm. One way to do so is by reporting suspected mistreatment.

Dial 9-1-1 if you or someone you know is in immediate, life-threatening danger.

If the danger is not immediate, but you suspect mistreatment, please tell someone.

To report suspected or known abuse, contact Adult Protective Services (APS) in the state where the victim resides. Call the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116. Trained information specialists are available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. You can also search for a local APS agency at

If you suspect abuse in a nursing home, assisted living facility, or similar institution, contact a Long-Term Care Ombudsman. To locate one, visit or

Keep in mind that you need not prove that abuse has occurred to report a concern. The professionals who take your report will investigate the suspicion. Be prepared to provide the name and address of the person whom you think is at risk. You will also be asked for your contact information. Those who take reports cannot release your name to the alleged victim or abuser. Most states will take a report even if the reporter does not identify him/herself.

If you have been the victim of abuse, exploitation, or neglect, you are not alone. Many people care and can help. Tell your doctor, a friend or relative, the police, or your local APS agency.

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Educating older adults, professionals, caregivers, and the public on elder abuse is critical to prevention. Research on the complex factors that contribute to abuse is ongoing. However, there are several things that everyone can do to protect themselves and others.

  • Stay active in your community and connected to family and friends. This involvement decreases isolation, which is often linked to elder abuse.
  • Use advance planning tools, like a living will and limited power of attorney, to make your wishes known and identify trusted people to manage your health care and finances if you are unable to do so.
  • Seek independent advice from someone you trust before signing documents, making large purchases, or investing.
  • Do not provide personal information, such as your social security number, over the phone unless you placed the call and know the person with whom you are speaking.
  • If you hire someone for personal assistance, home care, or a similar service, make sure a proper screening and background check is done.
  • Know your rights. If you have a paid or family caregiver, you have the right to voice your preferences and concerns. If you live in a residential facility, the LTC Ombudsman is your advocate and has the power to intervene.

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Additional Resources

National Center on Elder Abuse
Funded by the Administration on Aging

National Domestic Violence Hotline
TTY: 1-800-787-3224

State-Specific Assistance

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