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When I was a laddie
I lived with my granny
And many a hiding ma granny di’d me.
Now I am a man
And I live with my granny
And do to my granny
What she did to me.

Traditional rhyme, anonymous



Elder abuse is an often unnoticed yet growing problem in the American culture.

The number of older persons in American society is increasing, with the number of persons over the age of 85 growing faster than the elderly population in general.

With the advancements in medical science contributing to the elongation of the life span for larger numbers of men and women, the challenge of insuring safe, healthy, productive lives for the elderly grows.

For many older persons, the prospect of an extended life means additional suffering and hardship due to abuse or neglect. Victims often live in isolation where their limited physical capacity, fear and increased vulnerability compound their sense of aloneness leading to a decline in their physical, emotional and mental health. Many of these victims suffer in silence, fearful of what will happen to them should the abuse become known.


Prior to the early 1980’s the literature on family violence contained limited references to the abuse of elders by their adult children, other family members or caretakers. In the intervening years numerous researchers and scores of professional have been exploring this dimension of family violence.


A look at national statistics confirms that many among the aged in our society are victims of elder abuse:


In 1990 the results of two incidence studies were released which involved surveys of state adult protective services and aging agencies nationwide.


The findings indicate that between 1.6 and 2 million older Americans become victims of abuse or neglect in domestic and institutional settings each year.


The U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Aging has reported that women are the most likely victims of elder abuse as well as persons 75 years and older, and individuals who are dependent on others for care and protection.

In the past the prospect of caring for an aging adult or elderly parent over a prolonged period of time was not given much consideration by most American families.


Today, situations where older persons become the victims of abuse by family members can are increasing as greater numbers of parents live into old age and require care from their children.


In a family where there is a tendency to physically harm members who are weak or dependent, the aging members of society, who are among the most vulnerable, become the next victims in the cycle of intergenerational family violence.


Violence toward the elderly by their middle-aged children or others is a special form of family violence and, just like child abuse and domestic violence, deserves to be recognized, investigated and appropriate interventions provided to save victims from unnecessary suffering. Above all, we must educate the public to recognize elder abuse as a devastating form of family violence and work to prevent its occurrence.


Elder Abuse Defined

What is elder abuse? 

The term "elder abuse" is used to describe the mistreatment of older persons in both home and institutional settings. Although a precise and uniform definition of elder abuse does not currently exist, it is generally defined as any unnecessary suffering, whether self-inflicted or other inflicted, which negatively affects the quality of life of the older person.

Elder abuse is linked to child abuse and domestic/spousal abuse in the chain of intrafamilial violence known as intergenerational family violence. The first documentation of elder abuse in the United States occurred in 1978. Since then increased attention has been given to this growing social problem.


Research and studies into this area of family violence have identified types of abuse and a range of behaviors included in the general concept of elder abuse.


We now know that elder abuse victims frequently evidence symptoms similar to victims of the battered child or battered wife syndrome.

It is important to remember that violence and its related behaviors are learned and often passed from one generation to the next. A child who is abused by a parent may become an adult who uses violence toward a spouse or child then, as caretaker for an aging parent, extends the abuse to his/her parent or relative.

What are the forms of elder abuse?

The four most common forms of elder abuse are physical abuse (including sexual abuse), psychological and emotional abuse, financial/material abuse, and neglect. Check out our Elder Abuse FAQ page for frequently asked questions.


Physical Abuse

Includes behavior toward an elderly person which results in bodily harm, injury, unnecessary pain, unreasonable confinement, punishment, coercion, or mental distress.


Examples of physical abuse include: the infliction of injury, such as dislocation or bone fracture; slapping, cuts, burns; bruises, especially if several exist of different colors which may indicate repeated injuries; bites, lacerations, pushing, shoving, kicking; dehydration or loss of weight without a medical explanation; untreated bedsores or poor skin hygiene, etc.


Also included are the use of physical restraints for punishment, in the case of victims in long-term care facilities, and unnecessary pulling, tugging or twisting of the body by the staff when working with the older resident. Sometimes signs of physical abuse are not obvious and may be camouflaged by clothing or blankets.


Sexual Abuse

Includes any form of sexual contact that results from threats, force or the inability of the older person to give consent, including assault, rape and sexual harassment.


Psychological / Emotional Abuse

This form of abuse includes threats or actions directed at an elderly person in an effort to provoke the fear of violence or isolation and which may result in mental anguish, anxiety or depression.

Examples of psychological abuse include the intentional use of threat or injury, unreasonable confinement, punishment, verbal intimidation or humiliation, name- calling, insulting, frightening, threatening or isolating, yelling or screaming at the older person, using ridicule or demeaning language toward him/her, etc.

Although psychological abuse is more difficult to detect, resultant behaviors may be observable. These behaviors on the part of the victim include withdrawal, depression, anxiety, hesitancy to talk openly about what is going on, denial of the abuse, social isolation from friends or neighbors, and fear of family members.


Financial / Material Abuse

Included in this form of abuse is any behavior by a relative or caregiver, without the knowledge and consent of the older person, that results in financial exploitation of the older person through illegal or unethical use of his/her money, property or other assets for personal gain.

Lack of necessities such as food, clothing, a wheelchair, hearing aid, etc., or care that is not consistent with resources available may be symptoms of financial abuse.


Other examples of financial/material abuse include theft or conversion of money, personal or other property to the benefit, gain or profit of the perpetrator and loss to the older adult, such as unusual bank account activity or changes in the title to property.​



Neglect can be either active or passive on the part of the caregiver. Active neglect means the willful deprivation of goods or services which are necessary to maintain the physical or mental health of the older person. Passive neglect is failing to recognize the elder’s needs, thereby keeping from them needed goods and services.


Additional examples of neglect include: a breach of duty or carelessness that results in injury or violation of the older persons rights, deliberate abandonment; denial of food, medication, or health related services. Serious neglect can occur without a conscious attempt to inflict physical or emotional stress.



Widely held negative attitudes and dehumanizing stereotypes make older persons vulnerable to maltreatment by both family members and institutional care providers.


Since violence is a learned behavior, if an adult was abused by his/her parents s/he may abuse their aging parents.

Most elder abuse victims are dependent on the abuser for basic needs. The victim may be suffering from a physical or mental impairment, common among the very old, and exhibit behavior indicating fear, withdrawal depression or helplessness. This situation often leads to dependence upon family members or caregivers who may not be emotionally, financially, or otherwise able to meet these demands.


Resentments, exhaustion and/or guilt can be contributors to the use of abusive behavior.



The prevention of elder abuse is dependent on numerous factors. Among the most important is national re-education and change in attitude toward the elderly and disabled in our society. In addition, we must develop a greater awareness among the public about the nature and scope of elder abuse.


Over the last several years national policy toward the aging has encompassed measures toward the prevention of elder abuse. However, additional work must be done in the development of programs to help families who must or wish to care for elderly members at home. The development of more resources to provide meals, day care, transportation, counseling and help with daily tasks are needed to lessen the stress on both the caregivers and the elderly in need.


With continued research into the causes and treatment of elder abuse, and on going prevention education efforts, elder abuse will no longer remain a hidden disgrace.

It Is Important to Remember... elder abuse must never be considered acceptable or a "natural" part of family life. Without adequate services for victims and their families, efforts toward prevention cannot hope to break the cycle of abuse.

NCCAFV’s American Campaign for Prevention  of Child Abuse and Family Violence

In keeping with its commitment to the prevention of child abuse and all forms of intergenerational family violence, NCCAFV has prepared this information to help you better understand elder abuse. Prevention can only occur when we understand the problem and commit ourselves to sharing this information with others in our community.

We hope you will find this important information helpful and will join with NCCAFV in helping to prevent elder abuse.

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