What does elder abuse look like?

Dr. Oluwatoyin Thomas, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

Elder abuse can look like many things. Is Mom having difficulty managing finances? Is she forgetting to pay bills? Those could mean there is financial abuse. Is she missing meals? Is she wearing the same clothes over and over? Is she bathing? Is the house really messy all the time? Those are signs of neglect/self-neglect. Does she seem down all the time? Is she saying she is worthless? Is there an unexplained bruise or fall? Those could mean there is partner-on-partner or verbal abuse.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site.  In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Joane Goodroe
Nursing Specialist

Elderly can be subjected to physical or emotional abuse. 

Signs of Physical Abuse may include:

  • Unexplained signs of injury such as bruises, broken bones, sprains, or dislocations
  • Drug overdose or failure to take medication regularly (someone is withholding the medicine.) 
  • Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists
  • Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone

 Signs of Emotional Abuse may include:

  • Caregiver may be threatening and trying to control the person
  • Some elderly may be afraid to answer questions

Two other things to consider are sexual abuse and financial abuse of the elderly. If you suspect there is a problem, it is always best to report your concerns.

Dr. Bonnie Lynn Wright, PhD
Geriatrics Nursing Specialist

Elder abuse can be invisible. Financial abuse is sometimes evident to an alert bank employee who is familiar with the senior's spending patterns and can spot a change in that pattern. Unfortunately, with automation, tellers are less likely to be aware of small changes. Banking officers could detect larger degrees of abuse if the senior changes their investments to get cash to replace that stolen from them.

Emotional abuse can be invisible although an alert visitor or home nurse may identify that the senior is more withdrawn, irritable, defensive, cowering or self-deprecating than usual. Seeing these behaviors once should put you on alert. Seeing them a second time should prompt you to start finding reasons why. Could it be a deepening depression from chronic health problems or family members mean-spiritedness forcefully expressed to the senior?

Physical abuse looks like one of two things; physical injury such as bruises, limps, etc., or neglect such as coated tongue, weight loss, poor hygiene, etc. If you notice these symptoms, prompt inquiry is required because the senior's very existence may be threatened due to malnutrition or physical harm.


Caregiver - a simple word for a very complex job. Because doing exactly that, giving care, is a very difficult task, especially when the care is given to the elderly. Sometimes, that means helping with routine tasks, like driving Miss Daisy to her doctor's appointment, or dishing out medications. Sometimes, the tasks are more demanding, like helping the senior citizen do things he or she can no longer do on their own, like eat, drink, bathe and live in a safe environment. But, just because doing these things is tough, doesn't mean they don't need to get done.

And sometimes, when they don't, it's a sign of elder abuse.

Maybe the abuse occurs out of ignorance on the part of the caregiver. Maybe it is out of frustration. Or something more nefarious, out-and-out intentional neglect. These neglected senior citizens show signs of elder abuse like being dirty, wearing dirty clothing, or living without utilities, including heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Maybe the senior citizen is left to wander the streets, or is malnourished or dehydrated. But even if these conditions exist, it may not mean there is abuse. Many cases of reported elder abuse are due to self-neglect.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.