sad old man pondering

Elder abuse is defined as the physical, emotional, or sexual harm inflicted upon an elderly person. It also includes financial exploitation and neglect by a caregiver or the person responsible for their care. As older adults become less mobile and/or physically weakened, they are less able to defend themselves against this type of aggressive behavior. They may also be crippled by physical or mental disabilities, which makes them targets for exploitative behavior.

In the U.S., around 500,000 cases of elder abuse are reported every year. However, there are millions of cases that go unreported due to fear or hesitation on behalf of the senior. Abusers are often the adult children of seniors, but can also be other close family members or caregivers at senior facilities.

Laws Protecting The Elderly

As authorities and government officials become more aware of the magnitude and serious consequences of elder abuse, abandonment, and exploitation, preventative laws are being introduced to Congress. These laws are intended to strengthen the programs and services that help seniors suffering from abuse and require mandatory reporting of such cases. There are federal laws in place to protect seniors across the nation, but some states have drafted their own bills to protect their older residents.

Federal Laws

Enacted as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010, the Elder Justice Act (EJA) was the first federal legislation passed that specifically addressed elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It authorized funding for state Adult Protective Services programs and called for federal strategizing of elder abuse prevention services. Under this act, senior care facilities have been enhanced with more funding for staff training, management, and maintenance. It also requires nursing home or senior care facility employees to report cases of elder abuse. The EJA also allowed for the formation of an official Elder Justice Coordinating Counsel and Advisory Board in the executive Office of Health and Human Services.

State Laws

States with high proportions of senior citizens often have stricter and more expansive laws and regulations that protect the elderly from abuse. The penalties for elder abuse may also be harsher. However, all 50 states have specific protections against the abuse of elders. Examples are the following:

  • Elder Abuse and Neglect Act – protects against the abandonment by a caregiver or family member to care for a senior
  • Protection Against Criminal or Civil Elder Abuse – prevents the willful infliction of pain upon an elder
  • Protection Against Criminal Financial Exploitation – prevents the misuse of a senior’s resources for one’s own financial profit

Visit the Elder Abuse Statutes page on Justice.gov for state-specific information.

Types of Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is any purposeful act that results in the physical, emotional, or mental harm of an elder. There are 5 main types of elder abuse that can cause serious damage to a senior.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the intentional use of physical force that can result in bodily injury, physical impairment, or serious illness. The most common form of physical abuse is violent action, which includes hitting (with or without an object or weapon), scratching, biting, pinching, choking, pushing, kicking, or burning. Physical abuse includes anything non-touching that can affect the senior’s physical health. Examples of this are purposefully giving a senior the wrong drug dosage or confining them within a certain room or area.

Warning Signs

  • Inexplicable signs of injury (such as bruises, scratches, or scars)
  • Random fractures, sprains, or bone breaks
  • Changes in medication evaluation (too much or too little of a prescription)
  • Signs of restraint such as marks on wrists, ankles, or neck

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse occurs when an individual intentionally uses any verbal or non-verbal communication that imposes distress, humiliation, fear, or anxiety upon a senior. Examples of this include insulting a senior, threatening them with physical abuse or isolation, isolating them from family/friends, exerting excessive control of their life, or blaming them.

Warning Signs

  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Changes in social behavior – including being suddenly withdrawn, quiet, or insecure
  • A senior attempts to harm themselves and/or others
  • A senior expresses feelings of hopelessness, extreme sadness, or suicide
  • Controlling behavior from a caregiver

Financial Exploitation

Financial exploitation occurs when a caregiver, relative, friend, or other uses a senior’s funds, assets, or property without authorization. Abusers will deprive an elder of their access to their resources and assets for their individual financial gain. Examples of this form of abuse include possession theft, forgery, and/or the coercion of a senior to yield their finances.

Warning Signs

  • Suspicious bank activity – including large, frequent, or unexplained withdrawals
  • Caregiver or relative who suddenly conducts financial transactions on behalf of an elder
  • New, random accounts appear in bank statements without explanation
  • A sudden decrease in funds
  • A senior reports missing cash or checks

Abandonment and Outright Neglect

Abandonment occurs when a caregiver purposefully neglects their responsibility to care for an elder. This means that they stop meeting the necessary medical care, nutrition, and hygiene needs that a senior cannot meet on their own. A senior who relies on their caregiver can be put at serious risk for injury, compromised health, and/or safety if abandoned by their caregiver. Abandonment can also occur when a caregiver exposes a senior to unsafe environments or activities, therefore putting the elder in harm’s way.

Warning Signs

  • A senior is not heard from by family/friends
  • Regular complaints about hunger or fatigue
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Untreated physical problems
  • Unsanitary living conditions
  • A senior is noticeably unbathed or continues to wear the same clothing

Sexual Abuse

Any sexual contact imposed upon a senior that is forced or unwanted is considered sexual abuse. Any physical sexual act that is performed without a senior’s verbal consent is exploitative, but sexual abuse can also include non-touching acts. Examples of non-touching acts of sexual abuse include forcing a senior to undress, to watch sexual acts, or to watch pornographic material.

Warning Signs

  • Direct report of sexual assault
  • Bruises around the genitals, breasts, or other parts of the body
  • A sudden fear and/or dislike of being undressed
  • A sudden distrust or fear of a particular individual

How To Prevent Abuse of the Elderly

In the event that a senior experiences one or more forms of abuse listed above, they should immediately tell someone they trust. This can be anyone from a family member, a friend, or a medical professional. If it’s been discovered by another individual that elder abuse has been or is currently taking place, it is important to prioritize the needs of the elder, as they can sometimes be hesitant to report the abuse themselves.

If you or an elder you know is suffering from elder abuse, please consider taking the following actions:

  • Contact authorities if there is immediate, life-threatening danger
  • Report the abuse to Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116
  • Relocate the elder from their current living arrangement or wherever the abuse most often takes place
  • Take responsibility away from the abuser – i.e. discharge a paid caregiver, put the senior in the care of another family member, etc.

Visit the State Resources page on the National Center on Elder Abuse website