What Is Elder Abuse? How to Spot the Warning Signs

By Relationships Australia

The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study shows that around one in six Australians aged 60 years and older are experiencing some form of abuse. We describe what elder abuse is, the forms it can take, how to spot the warning signs, and where to get help if you or someone you know is experiencing it. 

Elder abuse occurs when a person in a position of power harms, exploits or mistreats an older person. The abuse can be a one-off incident, ongoing or part of a history of domestic and family violence. People who are most likely to abuse older people are family or friends of the older person. 

The Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2018 revealed that abuse is shockingly common in residential care, with 5,718 allegations of assault received under the mandatory reporting requirements in 2019-20, and a further 27,000 to 39,000 alleged assaults that were exempt from mandatory reporting. 

It’s often hard to tell when elder abuse is taking place. In fact, for years, elder abuse and other issues around aged care were barely spoken about. Even today, we don’t always think about the demands placed on carers or the difficulties and frustrations elderly people face. It’s these stresses that can give rise to abuse – and keep it hidden. 

Sadly, physical signs of elder abuse can be dismissed as dementia or ‘old age’. Emotional signs can also take time to appear, and outright accusations from the victim-survivor may also be dismissed. Often, an older person isn’t able to report unjust treatment at all due to isolation, cognitive impairment, or physical limitations. 

This makes it even more important for those in the community to watch out for abuse and take action if they see something concerning. 

Types of elder abuse 

Elder abuse can take many forms, the most common being psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect, but there are other types of abuse, too: 

  • Physical abuse – a deliberate act that causes pain, injury or intimidation. This includes all forms of physical assault and restraint. 
  • Psychological or emotional abuse – an intentional threat or action that causes fear of violence, isolation, deprivation, humiliation or powerlessness. 
  • Sexual abuse – any sexual interaction that occurs without an older person’s consent, or through coercion. 
  • Neglect – a carer’s failure to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter or medical care, or preventing someone else from providing them. A common sign of neglect is poor personal hygiene. 
  • Social abuse – forced isolation that stops or limits an older person’s contact with friends, family or their community. Social isolation often allows other forms of abuse and abandonment to take place. 
  • Financial abuse – the illegal mismanagement or improper use of an older person’s finances. This includes stealing money or possessions or controlling finances without permission. 

The warning signs of elder abuse 

It can be difficult to know what to look for when you’re worried about elder abuse, or to know if certain behaviours are the result of abuse, or the changes and complications that can come with age.  

While it can be hard to spot, there are signs to look out for. Physical injuries – from bruises to broken bones – and changes in a person’s financial situation can be clear indicators that something is amiss. But subtle changes in behaviour – like noticing that someone has become withdrawn, forgetful or evasive – can also suggest abuse might be occurring. 

Take note if it becomes hard to visit an older person. Watch out for weight loss, confusion, poor hygiene, increased hospitalisations and low self-esteem. Be wary if you see a carer or family member argue with, belittle or punish someone. 

Take claims of abuse seriously and reach out to those you’re concerned about, but only when you believe it’s safe to do so. Staying in regular contact and understanding an older person’s situation is the best way to spot signs of elder abuse and let someone know you’re there for them. 

What causes elder abuse to occur? 

It can be tempting to judge those who use abuse harshly, and indeed it seems inexcusable that someone would willingly harm another person. 

While elder abuse is never acceptable or justified, it’s more likely to occur when a carer or family member is experiencing high levels of stress, feeling overworked, dealing with depression or addiction, or dependant on the older person for support – be that financially, socially or physically. It may also occur if a carer is looking after someone who was once abusive or is made to feel isolated and unsupported in their role. 

Caregiving can be an undervalued, invisible role with that comes with a huge mental and physical burden. If your situation has changed as a caregiver, or you’re struggling in the role and worry you may harm or neglect those in your care, know that support is available. It’s always best to take action before a situation escalates and abuse occurs. 

What to do if you suspect or witness elder abuse 

Elder abuse is incredibly distressing, and it can be helpful to speak to someone who understands this complex issue. They can help you how to proceed if you’re worried someone you know is being mistreated or exploited. 

Where appropriate, speak to the older person and keep a record of events. Ask them about their wellbeing and relationships. They may feel ashamed or worried about possible consequences, so stay calm, be patient and open, and avoid blame. You may need to offer careful prompts if you sense they’re nervous about opening up. Most importantly, let them know that help is available and that you can put them in touch with the relevant organisations. 

If you think an older person is in immediate danger, call 000. If you’re after information, support or referrals, contact the NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline. 

What to do if you’re being exploited or mistreated 

If you feel threatened or unsafe, always call 000.

Finding someone to talk to and share your concerns with can make a huge difference. This could be a trusted friend, family member or trained professional, such as your GP. Our Let’s Talk Elder Support and Mediation Service could also help improve your situation.

You may feel protective of the person mistreating or exploiting you, particularly if they’re your adult child. However, it’s important to remember that you have a right to feel safe, comfortable and protected, and that people – including adult children – can get help for their problems. 

Where to get help with elder abuse 

There are several organisations available to provide information and support for older people and concerned family and friends. 

  • NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline – offers information, support and referrals for anyone who experiences, witnesses or suspects the abuse of an older person. 
  • Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission – reach out if there’s concern around the care you or someone you know is receiving via an Australian Government-funded aged care provider (this may include services received in home or an aged care facility). 
  • NSW Seniors Rights Service – provides legal information, advocacy and information about your rights in aged care. 
  • Carers NSW – this organisation works with carers to improve their health, wellbeing, resilience and financial security. 
  • Lifeline – call for crisis support, referrals and suicide intervention. 
We offer family counselling, individual counselling and mediation to help support older people, as well as support services for carers who may be experiencing stress, depression or other concerns.

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