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About Abuse

Elder Abuse

Updated: 
August 15, 2019

How can I recognize signs of elder abuse?

Here are some common signs of abuse that an older adult may show. However, these are not all of the possible signs of elder abuse.

  • Signs of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect:
    • bruises, especially when bruises are grouped in one area or in regular patterns;
    • black eyes;
    • welts;
    • signs of medication overdose;
    • signs of medication not being taken;
    • avoiding eye contact;
    • startling easily;
    • cringing from contact;
    • unusual or inappropriate affection;
    • change in sleep patterns;
    • complaints of stomachaches or headaches; and
    • refusal to see visitors.
  • Signs of emotional or psychological abuse:
    • agitation or fear in the presence of a specific person (usually the abuser);
    • withdrawal from contact and normal activities;
    • apathy;
    • regression to childlike behaviors, such as sucking, rocking, or biting; and
    • mood swings.
  • Signs of financial abuse:
    • shame;
    • suspicion; and
    • withdrawal from contact and normal activities.1

Many signs of elder abuse are often mistaken for normal issues with aging. For instance, a person may think an older adult has simply changed with age if s/he used to be outgoing and talkative, but now startles easily or avoids eye contact. Assessing elder abuse can be complicated, however, since many symptoms of elder abuse may, in fact, overlap with symptoms of aging or medical issues, such as dementia, frailty, or other problems related to age.

Often, if the older adult does report the abuse, the abuser will deny being abusive if confronted, and may say the older adult is making the abuse up, exaggerating, or misinterpreting normal behavior. In many cases, however, older adult victims of abuse, like victims of abuse of other ages, may deny that they are being abused for a variety of reasons.

Victims of elder abuse will each show different signs of abuse and need different kinds of help, just like victims of other ages. Signs of abuse may need to be compared to the older adult’s normal behavior, and considered in light of his/her mental and physical health. If you are concerned that an older adult is being abused, you may want to speak to a trusted medical professional about assessing the symptoms of abuse or to your local Adult Protective Services office.2

1 Recognizing and Responding to Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse in Later Life,” American Society on Aging
2Abuse of the Elderly,” World Health Organization