Recognising the signs of elder abuse and how to get help

From emotional trauma to financial exploitation, learn how to recognise and prevent elder abuse. Together, let's build a future where every senior can age with dignity and safety. Source: Getty Images.

In Australia, a distressing reality persists: 1 in 6 older individuals experienced elder abuse in the past year, highlighting a significant issue in our society.

Alarmingly 1 in 2 people who perpetrate elder abuse are a family member, with psychological abuse the most common form of abuse.

As the world recognises World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15), it is high time we address this pressing issue and take a stand against such mistreatment.

By shedding light on the types of abuse faced by older individuals and understanding the measures to prevent them, we can forge a society where every senior can age with dignity, respect, and safety.

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is a multifaceted problem that often arises from individuals who are trusted by older people, such as family members, friends, professionals, or paid caregivers. It can occur in various settings, including the older person’s own home.

What makes it even more complicated is that sometimes both the victim and the abuser fail to recognise the abusive nature of their interactions.

According to the World Health Organisation, elder abuse is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”

While elder abuse can be physical, it can also take on other forms like emotional, sexual, financial or simply reflect intentional or unintentional neglect.

Recognising elder abuse

Elder Neglect and Self-neglect

We often see elderly neglect when a family member or caregiver fails to protect an older person from harm – causing them serious illness or injuries.  Neglect, whether it be in a home setting or in aged care facilities usually shows an intentional lack of regard for an older person’s needs – both physical and mental. You see it in people through signs of: 

  • Malnutrition or dehydration, or even a lack of food in the home or facility they live in
  • A lack of medical help
  • Poor hygiene and unclean or unsanitary living conditions
  • Untreated health issues, infections and injuries to their body like bedsores.  

Self-neglect occurs when an elderly person is unable to meet their basic daily needs and suffers as a result. Look out for the signs which are commonly seen as: 

  • An inability to eat or drink without assistance
  • Unable to dress or maintain basic personal hygiene
  • Cannot maintain their home in a clean and safe state
  • Can no longer manage their financial affairs
  • Unable to independently seek medical assistance and healthcare for health issues of any kind. 

Elder Financial Abuse

Elder financial abuse refers to the illegal, unauthorised, or improper use of an older individual’s resources. Aged care staff, family members, or even strangers can be perpetrators of elder financial abuse.

Common warning signs of elder financial abuse include:

  • Repeated instances of missing belongings or property
  • Lack of knowledge or understanding of their own financial situation by the elderly person
  • Bank statements being directed to someone other than the elderly person
  • Changes made to an older person’s power of attorney or bank accounts without their consent
  • Receipt of eviction notices
  • Evidence of unpaid bills
  • Unusual interest shown by someone regarding the elder’s spending habits
  • Withdrawals from the elder’s accounts that they could not have made
  • Changes to the names on bank accounts, properties or other assets – most particularly, the adding of a signatory, getting access to online logins 
  • Changes to wills, power of attorney or other legal documents without advice from long-term advisers

Elder Emotional and Psychological Abuse

Elder emotional and psychological abuse can be particularly traumatising for both the older person and their loved ones when they realise it has been occurring.

It takes many forms, but most commonly includes older people being called names, being distressed with threats and even being cut off from their loved ones or those who would put an end to the trauma if they saw evidence of it. 

Common signs to look for when someone is being abused emotionally are:  

  • They appear withdrawn, sad or frightened
  • They avoid people they know as if to be able to hide the abuse
  • They develop low self-confidence and constantly seek reassurance
  • They have sudden changes to their moods and potentially their behaviour. 

Elder Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical elder abuse involves the deliberate use of force against an elderly person, which can include actions like hitting, shoving, kicking, or physically restraining them.

Indicators of physical elder abuse include:

  • Cuts or scrapes
  • Broken bones
  • Bruises
  • Burns
  • Dislocated joints
  • Head injuries
  • Sprains

In addition to the visible injuries, there are other signs that may suggest an older person has been subjected to physical abuse:

  • A recurring pattern of hospitalisation due to the same or similar injuries
  • Delayed medical care for injuries
  • Unsatisfactory explanations provided by caregivers regarding the elder’s injuries
  • Visits to different emergency rooms (potentially to avoid raising suspicion)

Elder sexual abuse refers to any form of sexual contact with an older adult that is forced or non-consensual. This includes instances of sexual interactions involving elders who have conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive disabilities that render them unable to provide consent.

Signs of elder sexual abuse include: 

  • Bleeding or pain from genital areas or anus
  • Bruising of inner thighs
  • New occurrence of STDs

Taking action

If you suspect elder abuse, it is important to take appropriate action:

  • In an emergency, call 000: If you believe that an older adult is in immediate danger, contact the police or emergency services.
  • Check-in with your loved one: Encourage open communication and gently prompt them to share any concerns or experiences of abuse.
  • Maintain regular contact: Socially isolated elders are at a higher risk of abuse, so staying in touch can provide support and help identify potential issues.
  • Take accusations seriously: It is crucial to believe and validate the experiences shared by older adults regarding abuse. Ensure that they receive the necessary help and support.
  • Report to appropriate authorities to report cases of abuse or neglect. There are also organisations that can investigate the situation and take appropriate actions to protect the older adult.

You can also get help from the following outside resources:

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up