Elder abuse

Elder abuse is any behaviour that causes harm or distress to an older person, inflicted by someone they should reasonably be expected to trust.

Elder abuse can be physical, emotional or financial. It can be a one off occurrence or it can happen repeatedly over a period of time. It includes different forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation, both intentional and unintentional.


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Who does elder abuse affect?

Elder abuse is a global problem. International studies report that 3% to 10% of older people experience abuse or neglect each year. Elder abuse:

  • undefinedcommonly affects people who are frail and vulnerable and who depend on others to meet their most basic needs
  • happens to men and women of every religious, cultural, ethnic and income group
  • may occur in any setting, rural or urban
  • can affect older people living on their own or living with others
  • can occur in private homes or within a residential care or health care setting.

Sadly, much abuse goes unreported. It has been estimated that only 16% of all abuse incidents come to the attention of service agencies which can assist the older person to live safely.

See also risk factors for elder abuse

What are the types of elder abuse?

The 5 commonly used categories of elder abuse are:

  • physical abuse
    • inflicting physical pain or causing injury, including inappropriate use of force or restraint and use of medications that sedate or cause harm
  • sexual abuse
    • non-consensual sexual contact of any kind
  • psychological/emotional abuse
    • inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts
  • financial/material abuse
    • illegal or improper use of funds or other resources, and/or exploitation
  • neglect
    • failure to meet the physical and emotional needs of an older person.

More on types of elder abuse

Institutional abuse

Institutional abuse is a policy or accepted practice within an organisation that causes harm to, or disregards, a person’s rights. Examples include:

  • inappropriate  rationing of continence products
  • inflexible routines eg: dress for breakfast before 8am.

Institutional abuse may occur in rehabilitation and continuing care wards, as well as in acute wards, day care, emergency and outpatient departments, and any other area where the care of older people is provided.

What are the signs of elder abuse?

The following are signs that may raise suspicion of elder abuse but it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions – the whole situation needs to be taken into account:

  • unexplained behaviour, sleeping or eating habits
  • confusion, withdrawal and/or edginess
  • unexplained injuries
  • drowsiness (due to over-medication)
  • fear of a particular person
  • recoiling from touch
  • unusual withdrawals from bank accounts
  • unpaid bills and/or not enough money for necessities.

Read more about signs of abuse relating to different types of elder abuse.

How can elder abuse be prevented?

Older people have the right to make their own choices and decisions even if we don’t agree with them. To help prevent elder abuse, older people should be:

  • loved and cherished
  • spoken and listened to respectfully 
  • included in social activities
  • phoned or visited regularly
  • supported to spend their money how they wish
  • encouraged and supported to make their own decisions
  • enabled to set their own pace.

Where to find help

If you or an older person are in danger call the Police on 111.

If you are worried about how you or an older person are being treated:

  • talk to someone you trust – a friend or someone in your family
  • talk to someone you see regularly – a doctor, doctor’s nurse, or member of the church or spiritual leader
  • call the Family Violence Information Line on 0800 456 450
  • contact the Age Concern Council to find out about elder abuse and neglect services in your area. 

Learn more

Elder abuse Agewell, NZ
What is elder abuse? Age Concern Council, NZ


  1. Family violence intervention guidelines: Elder abuse and neglect. Ministry of Health, NZ, 2007
  2. Age Concern Council of New Zealand
  3. Agewell New Zealand
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.