What is elder abuse and why does it happen?

What is elder abuse and why does it happen?

When someone in a position of trust acts in any way that results in physical, financial, or emotional harm or distress to an older person, that’s called elder abuse.

Understanding how and why it happens is the first step in elder abuse prevention.

Though in no way does elder abuse and neglect ever become excusable, there are many reasons why it can occur. Understanding how and why it happens is the first step in elder abuse prevention.

It’s important to watch for signs of elder abuse as family caregivers can become stressed with the added responsibilities, causing them to lash out physically or verbally at the person they’re taking care of. Family caregivers may lack support from their own family, friends, employer, or the health care system, so important things like ensuring the elder person in their care has good hygiene, good nutrition, or socialization may fall through the cracks.

Even professional caregivers and health care providers can experience moments of elevated stress that can lead to elder abuse. Lack of training, poor working conditions, too many responsibilities, or a disposition unsuited to caregiving are factors that can lead to elder abuse by a caregiver. 

Unfortunately, seniors are vulnerable to many different types of abuse due to factors such as their advanced age, waning physical strength, or mental acumen, and health conditions. Knowing the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and the different ways in which elder abuse can occur is a good way to prevent it from happening.

Physical abuse is probably what we normally think of when we hear the term “elder abuse.” This type of abuse occurs when a senior is beaten, punched, kicked, scratched, pushed, has their hair pulled, or experiences any type of physical trauma that causes a physical injury, impairment, or even death. Restraining, confining, and forcing a senior to inappropriately use drugs also counts as physical abuse.

Emotional or psychological elder abuse occurs when a person uses verbal or non-verbal tactics in order to:

  • Intimidate through yelling or threats
  • Humiliate or ridicule
  • Ignore or neglect the elderly person’s needs
  • Isolate seniors from their circle of family and friends
  • Terrorize or menace

Elderly emotional abuse can leave scars that are just as painful as ones caused by physical abuse. It can undermine an elderly person’s confidence, make them afraid of everyday situations and people, and cause them to turn inwards as a result.

Seniors can also experience sexual abuse. This occurs when another person forces the elder to engage in sexual acts without their consent. Examples of non-consensual sex acts are rape and molestation, forcing the elder to: watch or take part in sex acts, view pornographic material, or undress for reasons other than to change clothes or bathe. 

Elder abuse doesn’t have to be an action that can result in trauma for the victim; it can come from neglecting the person’s needs for proper hygiene, socialization, nutrition, and medical care. Elder abuse and neglect by family caregivers may or may not be a result of them:

  • Not being aware of the needs of the senior in their care
  • Or they cannot or will not commit to their caregiving roles for various reasons
  • Or they are overwhelmed with balancing their caregiving duties along with their personal lives and careers

Financial elder abuse is also a problem. Financial exploitation of a senior involves unauthorized use of their funds, property, or their private information in order to steal from them or others.

To learn about the various financial scams that seniors are vulnerable to, please read our Elizz article called Caregivers need to learn about senior fraud prevention.

Unfortunately, seniors can also be abused by the care facility staff who are supposed to be taking care of them in your absence.

The elderly can be given too much or not enough medication, either on purpose to keep them docile, or inadvertently due to lack of experience or competency. Over-crowding and poorly-maintained senior care facilities can also result in a senior’s health – and sometimes,  their life – being put at risk.

Elder abuse is difficult to pinpoint, and not everyone displays the same signs and symptoms. Be on the lookout for:

  • Injuries such as bruises, cuts, broken bones, sprains, burn marks, scratches, etc., especially if they repeatedly result in trips to the ER
  • Fear or anxiety towards a caregiver, family member, or health care provider
  • Poor health, nutrition, and hygiene. Rashes, open wounds, or sores could indicate dirty or unsafe living conditions, elder neglect, or an untreated illness
  • Large withdrawals from their bank account, changes to wills or power of attorney, new loans taken out in their name
  • Hoarding, depression, or social isolation

It’s easy to lash out either physically or verbally at the person you’re taking care of when you’re at the end of your rope. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or suffering from caregiver burn out by the demands of being a caregiver, there are ways to get the help you need.

  • Ask your family and friends to help you take on some of the caregiving responsibilities on your plate, whether it’s at home, work, or with the elderly person you’re taking care of
  • Look into respite care services to give you a break from caregiving, or an adult day program for the senior in your care
  • Make connections with other caregivers in your community or even virtually to benefit from their experience and to share your own
  • Take care of yourself by staying healthy, eating right, and getting plenty of rest
  • Talk to a caregiving counsellor if you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, conflict, guilt, or grief



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