How to Spot and Stop Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is surprisingly common and may impact as many as 10% of seniors. It’s a shocking statistic, and if you have a loved one in a retirement home or are considering entering a nursing facility yourself, it’s also a pretty terrifying one.

With that said, let’s look at some of the most common signs of elder abuse and help you spot them in older adults relying on care facilities.

Types of Elder Abuse

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), there are seven types of abuse, and if you look for the warning signs you can try to spot any of these in your loved one.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is one of the most serious forms of elder abuse and it’s also one of the most common. It can include hitting, pushing, shaking, and kicking, but it can also include force-feeding, unnecessary restraints, and excessive or unnecessary administration of drugs.

The most severe forms of physical elder abuse include broken bones and lacerations, but other signs include bruises, strap marks, and sudden changes in the elderly person’s behavior. 

Of course, if the patient has mobility problems, bumps and scrapes are common and may not be a sign of mistreatment. If their attitude has changed, their mood has dropped, and you notice many unexplained bruises, though, it’s time to take action.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse refers to any kind of unwanted touching or inappropriate advances. Although less common, this form of abuse still exists and is very serious, especially as the patients being targeted may have limited mobility or understanding.

This form of abuse can be eradicated by strict staff screening, as well as regular checks and monitoring. Make sure the nursing facility has all of these systems in place and pay close attention to the changing mental and physical health of your loved one.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse is any kind of abuse that causes anguish and pain via verbal and non-verbal actions. It can seriously impact a patient’s wellbeing and turn what should be a safe and friendly environment into a place of fear and distress.

The most common forms of emotional abuse in nursing homes include belittling the patient, forcing them into isolation, treating them like naughty children, gaslighting, and manipulating. They may manipulate the patient into believing something that is not real, belittle them in front of other patients, shout obscenities, or harass them on a daily basis. 

There are no broken bones or bruises, so emotional abuse can be harder to spot, but it may present itself with sudden and drastic changes in mood. Does your loved one seem more withdrawn and depressed? Are they scared, and does this fear seem to intensify when they are around certain staff members?

Nursing staff may dismiss such a change in behavior as being common in all new patients, saying that they just need to be given time to settle in. While there can be slight changes in personality as the patient transitions from living at home to living in a nursing home, they shouldn’t be that drastic and they certainly shouldn’t last for several weeks or longer.

Financial Abuse

Elder financial abuse is when someone exploits a patient’s finances by stealing outright, mismanaging, or manipulating them into handing over checks, cash, and other funds. They may coerce them into signing checks or documents, and they may even manipulate their way into the patient’s will or abuse a position of guardianship.

Caregivers, strangers, and even family members can commit elder financial abuse, so be on the lookout for anything that seems out of the ordinary. Make sure the patient is aware of and protected against scams and phishing, and look for financial red flags, such as bills, credit problems, and repeat calls about credit cards and bank accounts.


Neglect is abuse by abandonment and occurs when a long-term care provider fails to provide adequate care, including everything from food and water to proper eyeglasses, clothes, and personal hygiene. 

Signs of neglect include sudden and significant weight loss, bedsores, dehydration, and personal hygiene problems. They may also suffer from numerous health problems resulting from malnourishment, chronic dehydration, and the lack of proper medications and treatments.


A patient may refuse to eat, drink, take medication, get out of bed, and maintain their personal hygiene. These are all forms of self-neglect and can result from problems within the nursing home.

They may, for instance, make a stand after suffering abuse and neglect. They may not be getting the medication they need or could be refused basic recreational facilities and outdoor access, making them depressed and angry.

It is also the job of the nursing facility to provide adequate care regardless of the patient’s response. They’re not children, so if they refuse to eat their dinner, they can’t be sent to bed without dessert and told to rethink their attitude. Patients with a deteriorating medical condition need food and water, and they need to be cleaned, groomed, and protected.

At the same time, however, self-neglect could be the result of their medical condition and may not be the fault of the facility. In such cases, it’s not considered a form of elder abuse.


Abandonment is an extreme form of abuse that results when a patient has been abandoned in their home or in a care facility. If they need around-the-clock care and have been ignored and left to their own devices, it is a form of neglect and needs to be addressed immediately.

Even if an older person has been left with law enforcement or in seemingly secure public locations, it is still a form of abuse.  

What to Do if You Spot Signs of Abuse

If you notice any serious signs of abuse in a loved one, they could be in immediate danger and you should contact 911. Provide the police with descriptions of the abuse, whether that be health problems, physical signs, or financial exploitation.

For cases of elder abuse that don’t pose immediate harm, and for times when you suspect but don’t have proof, you can contact Adult Protective Services, information on which is available on this list from the National Center on Elder Abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, or your local nursing home ombudsman.