5 Common Signs of Elder Abuse (And How to Report It)


Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Elder abuse is a heartbreaking and vastly underreported problem, as the World Health Organization reports that about one in six people over the age of 60 have experienced some kind of abuse.

The exact incidence of elder abuse is impossible to predict or know due to people’s reluctance to report abuse or their lack of understanding about what constitutes abuse of one of our more vulnerable populations. 

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The financial and emotional consequences of abuse of an elder are also staggering. According to The National Council on Aging, “elder financial abuse and fraud costs to older Americans range from $2.9 billion to $ 36.5 billion annually.” Entire estates have been wiped out due to financial exploitation by a family member or criminal. 

Sadly, most perpetrators of elder abuse are family members. They can be anyone close to your loved one, such as another adult child or a spouse. It is crucial to note that each person who comes into contact with an elder and suspects abuse must report it. It is only with awareness and prevention that people can make a difference in stopping this tragedy.

What Is Considered Elder Abuse?

One of the challenges with identifying and reporting elder abuse is understanding what it is. There are several different definitions of elder abuse. In general, elder abuse refers to any intentional or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. 

This harm can be physical, emotional, financial, psychological, or sexual. This type of abuse violates human rights and causes a significant loss of dignity and respect.

Risk factors include cognitive impairment, poor social support, low income, living with several people in a household, and being female. And anyone can be the victim of abuse. All 50 states have passed some kind of elder abuse prevention laws. 

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Common Signs of Elder Abuse

It is challenging for a victim of abuse to recognize that they are being abused. In particular, many elders depend on the care and trust of caregivers and family members so they are reluctant to report abuse for fear of losing that support or retaliation. Moreover, perpetrators of abuse can hide and lie to justify or explain signs of abuse. 

It is human nature to want to trust other family members and caregivers, and it can be hard to recognize the common signs of elder abuse. It is even more difficult to imagine a close family member betraying that trust.

1. Financial abuse and exploitation

Some studies suggest that family members commit more financial abuse of elders than scammers. Family members often have direct access to bank accounts and may even have financial power of attorney or guardianship, making it very easy to exploit an elder financially. There are many signs and red flags of financial abuse by a family member, caregiver, or a criminal.

Unexplained withdrawals from a bank account may be hard to detect if you aren’t keeping track. If you manage an elder’s finances, keep a close eye on withdrawals that aren’t necessary expenditures.

Unpaid bills are not necessarily a sign of financial exploitation if your elder has cognitive impairment. However, if suddenly there aren’t the funds available to pay for housing or other costs, this is a red flag.

In the event that someone authorizes themselves on an elder’s bank account without your knowledge or approval, this could be a red flag. This person could be a caregiver, friend, romantic interest, or family member. 

An unexpected change in will or trust documents that you find out about after the fact, or a transfer of assets to a family member or someone else. There are plenty of cases of an elder being pressured, threatened, or promised companionship in exchange for financial assets.

When a family member claims to have authority over an elderly person’s estate, it can be another big sign of elder abuse. It is not unusual for a family member to petition the court for guardianship giving them complete authority and control over finances. Families can become torn apart over these situations, and often end up in court. 

Also, it could be something else not as readily obvious such as someone forging an elder’s signature on checks or other financial documents. There is also the possibility of missing valuables from the elder’s home from a caregiver or other family member.

However, there are many other kinds of abusive actions that can fall under fraud and prey upon vulnerable aging adults. Some examples include:

  • Romance scams: Criminals exploit elders’ loneliness and convince them that they want to be romantically involved and then ask for money.
  • Lottery and sweepstakes: A person convinces an older person that they have won a sweepstake or lottery. To collect the money, the victim has to send a fee or provide sensitive bank information.
  • Fraudulent tech support: A technician calls and claims that you have technical problems with your computer. For a fee and release of personal information, they will fix the problem or ask for permission to shadow you on your screen, exposing your personal information.
  • Home repair scams: Seniors who live alone are very vulnerable to home repair scams. Someone shows up at the front door and claims that you need a repair, often a roof repair. The senior pays a deposit upfront for the planned work, and the worker never shows.  
  • Grandparent scam: A criminal poses as a grandchild who is in trouble and needs money sent right away.
  • Caregiver scam: Most professional caregivers are honest, trustworthy, and caring people, but some caregivers exploit the seniors they are caring for. Some forms of caregiver abuse can start out as them simply getting close to an elder, and then accepting cash or other valuables. There have even been reports of caregivers marrying their clients to exploit them financially.

2. Physical abuse

Physical abuse is inflicting physical pain or injury upon an elder. Signs of physical abuse can be challenging to detect since they can be hidden and not easily observable.

If you are concerned, try to keep an eye out for any bruises and lacerations that aren’t easily explained by falls or unintended accidents. For example, a loved one could have some broken bones that don’t have a reasonable explanation.

If they show any fear of particular caregivers or family members, it is also worth noticing and asking about. Other signs of abuse can include any physical restraining marks, or seeing someone push, shove, or moving an elder in a rough fashion that can cause fear or injury.

3. Emotional or psychological abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse often coincides with financial exploitation. The abuse includes threats, intimidation, humiliation, and forced isolation from friends and family.

Emotional and psychological abuse can be tough to spot because it is easy to hide. This can exist in tandem with other previous signs of abuse as well. For example, an elder appearing withdrawn and fearful, especially around certain people. If your loved one displays any emotional agitation that doesn’t seem to be related to any particular circumstances, it could be cause for concern.

Finally, any unexplained anxiety and depressive symptoms are worth checking out and asking about in detail if you can.

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4. Neglect and/or abandonment

Neglect is the intentional failure or refusal to provide for an elder’s needs. These basic needs include food, water, shelter, clothing, or medical care. When someone is the primary caregiver for an elder, they are responsible for that person’s well-being. An adult cannot abandon a person just because they no longer want or can afford to care for them.

Some of the signs of neglect or abandonment can occur in a nursing home or other senior living situation. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Poor hygiene and evidence of malnutrition, dehydration or bedsores. 
  • Unsanitary and unsafe living conditions indicated by the filth in the home, dangerous wiring or appliances not working, and other neglected household maintenance.
  • Medical conditions not attended to leaving the person vulnerable to illness, disability or accidents. 

5. Sexual abuse

Sexual contact between two consenting adults, regardless of their age, is legal and acceptable.

Sexual abuse is touching, fondling, intercourse, or any other sexual activity with an older adult when the older adult cannot understand, consent, or is physically forced or threatened.

How Do You Typically Report Elder Abuse?

Knowing how to report elder abuse can be confusing. The most important thing to realize is that you have an ethical and possibly legal responsibility to report suspected abuse. All states require a person to report suspected abuse.

The laws in most states mandate professionals such as doctors and home health providers to report suspected abuse or neglect. These professionals are called mandated reporters. Eight states have legal mandates that any person must report a suspicion of mistreatment. Laws that mandate reporting will have penalties for not complying. 

Call 911 if the person is in immediate danger

If someone is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, call 911 to help that person. From that point, the authorities will investigate any abuse that contributes to their situation. You must protect someone who is in danger.

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In a nursing home or assisted living, contact the ombudsman

If you suspect an elder is being neglected or abused in a nursing home, contact the ombudsman program. The ombudsman program is responsible for investigating allegations of neglect or abuse. Every facility must by law post the ombudsman’s phone number in a prominent place.

In the community, contact Adult Protective Services

When a report is made to Adult Protective Services, they must investigate, which means they will visit the elder adult. This visit can have a significant impact on the alleged victim. They may feel intimidated and ashamed and will even deny the abuse. 

However, reporting abuse is still your responsibility. Adult Protective Services may not intervene if the elder denies the abuse, but there will be a record of the allegation. All reports to Adult Protective Services are anonymous.

How to Report and Recognize Common Signs of Elder Abuse

The signs of elder abuse, although challenging to accept, are everyone’s responsibility to detect and report. Joining senior advocacy groups can help you become more familiar with voicing any concerns you may have for your loved one.

You can also do as much long-term planning as you can so you will have the authority later to help if there is abuse.

  1. “Elder Abuse.” World Health Organization, 15 June 2020, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/elder-abuse
  2. “Elder Abuse Facts.” National Council on Aging, 23 February 2021,  www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/
  3. “Statistics and Data.” National Center on Elder Abuse, ncea.acl.gov/About-Us/What-We-Do/Research/Statistics-and-Data.aspx
  4. “Study: Financial Abuse of Older Adults by Family Members More Common Than Scams by Strangers.” University of Southern California News, 15 August 2019, hscnews.usc.edu/study-financial-abuse-of-older-adults-by-family-members-more-common-than-scams-by-strangers
  5. “ Reporting Elder Abuse.” National Bar Association, 11 February 2021,  www.americanbar.org/groups/senior_lawyers/resources/reporting_elder_abuse/

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