Understanding elder abuse

In 2015, it was estimated that approximately 120,000 individuals aged 65 or over experienced at least one form of abuse.* This article looks at what elder abuse means and how to get help for yourself or someone you think may be a victim.

What is elder abuse?

The recognised definition of elder abuse is as follows:

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.    

The abuse can occur in many different places and be perpetrated by a variety of people. Older people can be vulnerable and isolated and are likely to find themselves reliant on others, therefore exposing them to an increased risk of harm or exploitation.

Abuse can take several forms:

  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Psychological or emotional
  • Financial – This is most likely to be perpetrated by a family member improperly using or obtaining the victim’s assets. It can also include scams perpetrated by strangers preying on vulnerable people
  • Neglect or abandonment – Failure to provide adequately for an older person’s basic needs, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Who are the perpetrators of elder abuse?

  • Abusers can be anyone in a position of trust:
  • Family: partner/spouse, children and other family members
  • Neighbours and friends
  • Carers (paid or volunteer), hospital workers, care home workers, or other professionals.

Elder abuse can occur anywhere, not just in a person’s own home. It can be in the homes of their family, in hospitals, care homes and day centres.

The victim may be caring for an elderly spouse or family member who are themselves vulnerable and have a condition, for example dementia or drug addiction, where they become violent. When the abuse is inflicted by someone they love and care for, it is incredibly hard for the victim to come to terms with it.

Not all elder abuse is intentional. This of course does not make it any less unacceptable. Passive, unintentional abuse can occur where someone doesn’t have the skills to care for an older person, for example an under-trained care home employee.

Why are older people vulnerable to abuse?

Older people are more reliant on others to meet their needs and can lack control over their own lives. They may not be able to dress in the morning until their carer arrives. Perhaps they rely on someone to take them out shopping or to doctors appointments. If they have retired from work, they may be coming into less contact with people (and more contact with the abuser). This puts older people in a position where they can be exploited.

Victims can also have complex care needs – for example a physical disability that affects their mobility, or dementia – again increasing their reliance on others for their everyday needs. If they are in poor health and have reduced mobility, this limits their ability to access support services, leading to an even greater feeling of isolation and helplessness.

Other reasons why older people may be reluctant or unable to engage with support services include:

  • They perceive services as being geared towards younger people.
  • They care for the perpetrator so there is pressure to remain in the relationship/home, particularly if they have no local support network.
  • They do not recognise that they are experiencing abuse.
  • Generational or cultural beliefs about what should be kept private.

Sadly, for these reasons, elder abuse has many hidden victims.

The impact of elder abuse

The impact is like any form of domestic abuse: traumatic feelings of fear, isolation, hopelessness, low self-esteem and powerlessness. Being abused by someone they trust can sometimes make the victim feel embarrassed, ashamed and stupid. All these feelings contribute towards making it harder for older people to take steps to seek help.

Unfortunately, the older we get, the harder it is to recover physically and emotionally. The long-term consequences of elder abuse can result in medical problems, including those linked to stress. This can lead to hospitalisation or premature institutionalisation in a care home. Sadly, in someone who is already weak and less physically able, long-term abuse can lead to death.

The warning signs

Things to look out for that might indicate an older person is being abused:

  • Unexplained injuries or untreated problems (eg bed sores)
  • Failure to take medication regularly – missing GP appointments, unfilled prescriptions
  • Carer refuses to let the person be seen alone
  • Unexplained changes in appearance (eg weight loss), personality and behaviour
  • Frequent arguments between the individual and their care giver or family
  • Being left dirty, inappropriately dressed, or in unsafe/unsanitary living conditions.

Do you think you know an older person who is suffering abuse?

If you think someone you know is the victim of abuse, then there are steps you can take to help them:

  • Talk to them about what is happening, but don’t put words in their mouth – let them speak honestly.
  • Be sensitive – they may be feeling ashamed of what is happening to them.
  • If someone is not able to make changes for themselves, consider involving adult care services, talking to age concern or a local women’s centre or refuge.
  • Don’t overwhelm them with information. Put their options in writing so that they don’t have to remember what you’ve said and can consider the information at their own pace.
  • Tell them where they can go for help and offer to make contact for them. Give them our number for FREE confidential advice: 08 088 088 088.
  • Discuss whether there is a safe place they can go to escape an immediate threat of abuse.
  • If the perpetrator is someone the victim is caring for, find out what support is available to alleviate them of that responsibility and allay the inevitable feelings of guilt.
  • If you think someone is being abused in a care home or by a carer, contact your local council.

Are you being abused?

If someone is causing you distress or harm in any way, threatening you, or is forcing you to do something against your will, then you are being abused.

  • If it is safe to do so, contact us on 08 088 088 088 to talk confidentially to someone trained to help you find support.
  • If for whatever reason you cannot immediately remove yourself from the abuse, reduce the opportunity for it to happen. Could a trusted friend be present when the perpetrator is with you?
  • If you are dependent on the perpetrator for your mobility and access to other people, then GP or dentist appointments are an ideal opportunity to talk privately to someone who can help.
  • Never sign anything that hasn’t been checked by someone independently.
  • REMEMBER, in an emergency, always call 999.

Do not be ashamed of what has happened to you. Nothing about abuse is deserved or acceptable, no matter what the situation or who the perpetrator is. You have been taken advantage of and there are ways to put a stop to it – and you don’t have to do this alone.

You can contact Herts Domestic Abuse Helpline for advice and support. Our FREE confidential helpline is set up to support anyone who is impacted directly or indirectly by Domestic Abuse. Call 08 088 088 088 to speak to a local expert who can offer bespoke advice and signposting to support groups and the most appropriate agency support.


* Source: Safe later lives: older people and domestic abuse, report by SAFELIVES, 2016.