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Elder abuse is often defined as 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.[1] This definition was established by Action on Elder Abuse in the UK, but was then subsequently adopted by the World Health Organisation and has, at its core, the concept that such abuse is defined by the 'expectation of trust' of the older person toward their abuser. Consequently, it excludes more general criminal activity such as 'muggings' in the street or 'distraction burglary', where one stranger distracts an older person at their doorstep while another enters the property to steal. It has led to the development of policies and procedures for elder protection

In 2006 the United Nations designated June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) and an increasing number of events are held across the globe on this day to raise awareness of elder abuse, and highlight ways to challenge such abuse.[2] Although there are common themes of elder abuse across nations, there are also unique manifestations based upon history, culture, economic strength and societal perceptions of older people within nations themselves. The fundamental common denominator is the use of power and control by one individual to affect the well-being and status of another, older, individual.

There are several types of abuse of older people that are universally recognised as being elder abuse and these include:

  • Physical: e.g. hitting, punching, slapping, burning, pushing, kicking, restraining, false imprisonment/confinement, or giving too much medication or the wrong medication.
  • Psychological: e.g. shouting, swearing, frightening, blaming, put-downs, ridiculing, constant critcising/nitpicking, unkind comments, ignoring or humiliating a person; also common is threatening to place the person in a nursing home even though the person's physical or mental condition may not require such an action, telling lies, deceiving, spreading malicious rumours or gossip being treated like a child,isolation and control e.g. not allowing access and contact to family, friends and other people and things, manipulating, mind games, betraying and/or threats to divulge sensitive/personal information or material.
  • Financial: e.g. illegal or unauthorised use of a person’s property, money, pension book or other valuables (including changing the person's will to name the abuser as heir), often fraudulently obtaining power of attorney, followed by deprivation of money or other property, or by eviction from own home.
  • Sexual: e.g. forcing a person to take part in any sexual activity without his or her consent.
  • Elder neglect: e.g. depriving a person of food, heat, clothing or comfort or essential medication.

In addition some countries also recognise the following as elder abuse:

  • Rights abuse: denying the civil and constitutional rights of a person who is old, but not declared by court to be mentally incapacitated. This is an aspect of elder abuse that is increasingly being recognised and adopted by nations
  • Self-neglect: elderly persons neglecting themselves by not caring about their own health or safety.

Institutional abuse and racial abuse are not usually included in such categories as they tend to denote the motivation or circumstances, rather than the manifestation of abuse. That is not to suggest that institutional practices, often marginalised as examples of 'poor practice', do not form a major aspect of elder abuse, or that racially motivated abuse is not a signicant area of concern.

Common abusers of older people

Perpetrators of elder abuse can include anyone in a position of control or authority, or anyone who 'grooms' an older person in order to establish a relationship of trust. An abuser can be a partner, a relative, a friend or neighbour, a volunteer worker, a paid worker or a practitioner (e.g. a social worker, bank worker or solicitor).

Abusing relatives represent the majority of abusers, and tend to be the spouse/partner or sons and daughters, although the type of abuse differs according to the relationship. In some situations such abuse is 'domestic violence grown old', a situation in which the abusive behaviour of one partner toward another continues into old age. In other situations it is older people attempting to care and support other older people and failing, in the absence of external support. With sons and daughters it tends to be financial abuse, justified by a belief that it is nothing more than the 'advance inheritance' of property, valuables and money.

Within paid care environments, abuse can occur for a variety of reasons. Some abuse is institutional in that it is a consequence of practices or processes that are integral to the running of a care institution or service. Some abuse is the wilful act of cruelty inflicted by a single individual upon an older person. And some abuse is a consequence of lack of knowledge, lack of training, lack of support, or insufficient resourcing. Sometimes this type of abuse is referred to as 'poor practice', although it is important to recognise that this term reflects the motive of the perpetrator (the causation) rather than the impact upon the older person.

With the aging of today's population, there is the potential that elder abuse will increase unless it is more comprehensively recognised and addressed.

Abuse statistics

There has been limited research into the nature and extent of elder abuse, and it is often argued that the absence of such data is a reflection of the low priority given to work associated with older people. However, some consistent themes are beginning to emerge from interaction with abused elders, and through limited and small scale research projects. Work undertaken in Canada suggests that approximately 70% of elder abuse is perpetrated against women, and this is supported by evidence from the AEA helpline in the UK which identifies women as victims in 67% of calls. Also domestic violence in later life may be a continuation of long term partner abuse and, in some cases, abuse may begin with retirement or the onset of a health condition.[3] Certainly, abuse increases with age, with 78% of victims being over 70 years of age.[4]

The higher proportion of spousal homicides supports the suggestion that abuse of older women is often a continuation of long term spousal abuse against women. In contrast, the risk of homicide for older men was far greater outside the family than within. [5] This is an important point because the domestic violence of older people is often not recognised, and consequently strategies which have proved effective within the domestic violence arena have not been routinely transferred into circumstances involving the family abuse of older people.

According to the AEA helpline in the UK, abuse occurs primarily in the family home (64%), followed by residential care(23%)and then hospitals (5%), although a helpline does not necessarily provide a true reflection of such situations.[4]


Elder abuse can also include deserting an elderly, dependent person with the intent to abandon them or leave them unattended at a place for such a time period as may be likely to endanger their health or welfare.[6]

Self abuse and neglect

Elders can abuse / neglect themselves by not caring about their own personal health and well-being.[7] Elder self-neglect can lead to illness, injury or even death. Common needs that the senior may deny themselves or ignore are the following:

  • Sustenance (food or water)
  • Cleanliness (bathing and personal hygiene)
  • Adequate clothing for climate protection
  • Proper shelter
  • Adequate safety
  • Clean and healthy surroundings
  • Medical attention for serious illness
  • Essential medications

Elders may choose to deny themselves some health or safety benefits, which may not be self-neglect. This may simply be their personal choice. Caregivers and other responsible individuals must honor these choices if the senior is sound of mind.


Research conducted in New Zealand broadly supports the above findings, with some variations. Of 1288 cases in 2002-2004, 1201 individuals, 42 couples and 45 groups were found to have been abused. Of these, 70 percent were female. Psychological abuse (59%), followed by material/financial (42%) and physical abuse (12%) were the most frequently identified types of abuse. Sexual abuse occurred in 2 percent of reported cases.[8]

Age Concern Newfoundland found that most abusers are family members (70%), most commonly sons or daughters (40%). Older abusers (those over 65 years) are more likely to be husbands.[8]

See also


  1. [1], Action on Elder Abuse, accessed Oct 12, 2007.
  2. International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, accessed June 26, 2007.
  3. Silent and Invisible: A Report on Abuse and Violence in the Lives of Older Women in British Columbia and Yukon, 2001.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hidden Voices, Action on Elder Abuse, 2005.
  5. Statistics Canada, 1999, 38.
  6. Oregon Revised Statutes.
  7. Tina de Benedictis, Ph.D., Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., (2007) Elder Abuse Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Help. Helpguide,
  8. 8.0 8.1 Age Concern Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention Services: An Analysis of Referrals for the period 1 July 2002 to 30 June 2004. Age Concern New Zealand, November 2005.

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