Do You Know the Signs of Elder Abuse?


June 11, 2020

You want the best for your senior friends and family members. And that means loving attention and thorough care. Unfortunately, elder abuse is a common concern in long-term care settings and among family members. 

Knowing about elder abuse — its signs, symptoms and solutions — could help you protect the people you love. 

Here’s what you need to know about elder abuse, starting with some hard stats.

Facts About Elder Abuse

Older adults can be an easy target for abuse. According to one worldwide study, more than 15% of people over age 60 report abuse each year. In the United States, abuse is reported by about 10% of the senior population annually.

But unreported figures may be significantly higher.

Abuse is particularly prevalent in group settings. Around two-thirds of institutional caregivers admit to having inflicted elder abuse.

Abusive behaviors can also occur at home. Sadly, about 60% of elder abuse incidents are caused by family members. And blood relatives aren’t alone in causing pain. Paid in-home caregivers may also cause harm.

When you think about the word “abuse,” you might jump to physical harm. But abuse comes in all shapes and sizes, and knowing the signs might help you read between the lines.

Not sure what to look for or how to spot trouble? Elder abuse might look like:

  • Belittling or other forms of emotional abuse
  • Denial of care
  • Financial manipulation
  • Isolation and/or neglect
  • Physical mistreatment
  • Sexual abuse

Seniors are vulnerable to abuse for a variety of reasons. 

Poor mental and physical health could play a role. Older adults who don’t understand what’s happening or can’t resist may not be able to reach out for help. For seniors who do know what’s happening, social isolation or embarrassment may keep them from reporting the behavior. 

And while this isn’t an excuse, the stress of caregiving might be too much for some caregivers. People who might already be tempted to inflict abuse could give way to daily stressors — and take it out on the people in their charge.

Signs of Abuse

Unless you’re with your loved ones all the time, you can’t say for sure they’re safe all the time. In fact, you might not even recognize some of the more subtle signs of elder abuse. That’s not to say you can’t learn them and be prepared.

Keeping an eye out for symptoms of abuse in seniors may help you protect your family and friends.


Physical symptoms will likely be the easiest to spot. You might notice bruises, scrapes or cuts that you (or your loved one) can’t account for. Some injuries, such as broken bones and burns, may require immediate medical attention. Neglect can lead to bedsores or unexplained weight loss.

Personal appearance may offer other clues. Your loved one may look haggard or unkempt. You may notice torn clothing or spots of blood. In cases of sexual abuse, rips and stains may be hidden on underclothes.

Keep in mind that not every bruise or cut comes from abuse. People bruise more easily as they age thanks to thinning skin. And women tend to bruise more than men.

But consistent or frequent bruising, or marks that seem to have no reasonable cause, may signal trouble.


Emotional signs may not be as readily apparent. If your family member or friend becomes reluctant to engage with others or participate in social activities, it could be a sign of an underlying problem. You may notice symptoms of depression or anxiety, or the person may frequently seem confused and disoriented.

Ideally, seniors and their caregivers will have a positive relationship. Tension and fighting between them may point to a deeper problem that’s going on when you’re not around.

As with physical symptoms of abuse, emotional or behavioral changes could stem from other factors. But it’s worth looking into if the person you love seems different.

Other signs

A major shift in financial stability can be a sign that your loved one has been scammed or taken advantage of. He may be faced with overdraft charges, have utilities turned off or be unable to explain where his money is going.

It can be difficult to tell whether some of these signs are symptoms of abuse or just a normal side effect of aging and memory loss. In many cases, aging is a gradual process, but abuse can cause sudden changes. Perhaps you sense a sudden mood shift, or you might notice new bruises every time you visit.

Keep in mind that talking about abuse isn’t easy, especially for people who might already feel vulnerable. If you can’t get a straight answer about how an accident happened or why the bank account is empty, keep a sharp eye out for other signs of elder abuse or neglect.

What to Do If You See or Suspect Abuse

Elder abuse should never go unchecked. The results of prolonged abuse can be devastating. Not only can abusive behaviors cause physical injuries like sprains and broken bones, but they can also cause emotional disturbances. Abused seniors may withdraw or sink into depression. And financial exploitation can leave people without the means to care for their daily needs.

Abuse might also lead to earlier deaths. Research indicates that elder abuse at least doubles the chance that a senior will die prematurely.

In other words, if you suspect that a senior loved one is being abused, don’t hesitate. Take action. In most cases, it’s best to start by contacting a support service in your community.

State and local governments have Adult Protective Services departments. Start there. After you make a report, a representative will investigate your claims and determine whether further action is warranted. 

You can find contact information for adult services in your area from the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA).

If your loved one is in a residential care facility, reach out to your long-term care ombudsman. Administered by the Administration on Aging, this volunteer- and staff-run program looks into complaints and serves as an advocate for senior care.

In some cases, you may need to contact the police. 

This is particularly important if there is an immediate safety threat. Some forms of abuse warrant criminal charges.

Finally, encourage your senior loved one to stay connected to others. Being involved in social activities, family events and regular phone calls can help to reduce feelings of isolation. Connected seniors may have more opportunities to reach out for help, and they may stay in better physical and mental shape.