Preventing Abuse and Neglect of Older Adults

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
93a
Last Updated: 
August 2016

Abuse and neglect in later life can affect an adult’s health, happiness and safety. Older adults can experience different kinds of harm from people they rely on or trust. Abuse of older adults can occur at home, in the community, or in institutional settings. Those who abuse are most often family members such as a person’s spouse or children, but they can also include friends and caregivers.

What types of abuse or neglect can happen to older adults?

Abuse and neglect can take many forms including physical, emotional, financial, sexual, social, spiritual, or withholding medications or the necessities of life. Some types of abuse and neglect violate an older adult's basic rights, and several types are crimes.

  • Physical abuse includes violence, inappropriate restraint, or rough treatment, even if it does not leave an injury.
  • Emotional abuse includes name calling, intimidation, threats, or any treatment that offends an older person’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Emotional abuse is often a way that people try to control an older person.
  • Financial abuse is the most common form of abuse reported by older adults. Examples of financial abuse include pressuring an older adult with requests for money, using an older adult’s property or money without their permission, or improperly using one’s authority as a power of attorney.
  • Sexual abuse occurs when a person pressures an older adult for intimacy, sexually harasses or sexually assaults them. Sexual abuse can also include making sexual comments or jokes, and unwanted touching or leering.
  • Violation of rights means ignoring older adults’ rights to privacy, information or community supports for which they are eligible.
  • Neglect refers to situations where a person has a duty to provide care or assistance to an older adult, but does not provide that care. For example, the caregiver might stop paying the bills, providing food, medication, or other assistance to the older adult, or they may leave a dependent elderly person alone for long periods of time.

Why does abuse or neglect happen?

Some people learn to abuse or use violence and control in their relationships, and some do not treat older adults with respect. Some people experience personal problems or stresses, increasing their risk of harming or neglecting others. These factors may increase the risk of abuse.

Living together with older adults may create family tensions. In some cases, family pride can keep abuse hidden. However, caring communities can help protect people from abuse and neglect.

What are the health effects of abuse and neglect?

Abuse and neglect can have harmful long-term effects on the health and well-being of older adults. The health effects will vary from person to person depending on their situation. These effects may be lessened if the older adult has emotional support from friends and family, and if they feel like they have some control over the situation.

In general, older adults have less physical strength and they are less able to defend themselves from physical abuse. The most obvious signs of physical abuse are falls, bruises, broken bones, burns, head injuries or injuries to the mouth.

Other health effects of abuse or neglect are less obvious, and these may include sleeping difficulties, stomach problems, or breathing problems. An older adult who is neglected may be severely dehydrated (not getting enough fluids) or suffering from malnutrition (not getting enough food).

Some signs of abuse, such as frequent falls or confusion, may be mistaken as a part of aging. Some signs may look like health concerns that are common in later life. Older adults who experience abuse or neglect may also lose interest in life, change their habits such as eating, drinking or taking medications, or have suicidal thoughts. People may not recognize or identify these as abuse.

Living with abuse and neglect can increase a person's chances of getting sick or dying sooner. The stress of living with abuse or neglect may also make other health concerns worse.

What are the emotional effects of abuse and neglect?

Individuals who cause abuse and neglect to older adults often threaten, harass, or intimidate them. They may cause fears in older adults by threatening to not let them see their grandchildren, threatening to leave them alone, or place them in a residential care facility.

Older adults often feel stressed, worried, anxious or depressed as a result of abuse and neglect. They may feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment that someone in the family or someone close has harmed them. An older adult who feels abused or neglected usually loses trust in the person who causes the harm.

Some older adults who have experienced abuse earlier or throughout their lives may use alcohol or prescription drugs to help them with sleep, anxiety, or other concerns.

If you or someone you know is, or has been abused, you can seek out counseling or join a support group to help with the emotional effects.

How can abuse and neglect be prevented?

There is no law in British Columbia that requires people to report abuse and neglect of older adults. If you experience abuse or neglect, you can get help and prevent the situation from becoming worse. There are several ways you can help an older adult who may be or feel abused or neglected:

  • Believe the older adult if they confide in you about a difficult situation.
  • Listen to the older adult in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Recognize abuse and neglect and speak up about it.
  • Encourage the older adult to ask a professional for confidential help.
  • Know where to call to get help or information.
  • Respect the person's choices.

If you are a service provider working with older adults, you can help as follows:

  • Help older adults and families learn more about their rights and responsibilities.
  • Help older adults build or regain their confidence and skills.
  • Help reduce the person's social isolation.
  • Have appropriate resources to help older adults and families.

Health professionals and other service providers are trained to recognize the common signs and screen for abuse and neglect, and they know how to help. They can help an older adult assess their own personal safety, and they can help develop a safety plan.

What should I do if I see a crime or harmful situation?

If you see a crime or harmful situation occurring to an older adult, call the police or 9-1-1 right away. Advise that you want to report a situation of suspected elder abuse, neglect or self-neglect.

For More Information

For more information about elder abuse and neglect, or to get help, call or visit the following services:

For more information about abuse and older adults, see the following HealthLinkBC Files:

BC Centre For Elder Advocacy and Support Logo

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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