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Frequently Asked Questions

This page provides a brief overview of: what is abuse in later life; who are the victims and offenders; where does it occur; why does it occur; why do victims return to abusers, and what can I do.

What is elder abuse?

Generally elder abuse is considered physical, sexual or psychological abuse, as well as neglect, abandonment and financial exploitation of an older person by another person or entity.  Elder abuse can occur in any setting (e.g., home, community or facility), and can occur either in a relationship where there is an expectation of trust and/or when an older person is targeted based on age or disability.  

What is abuse in later life?

Abuse in later life is physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, neglect, financial exploitation, or stalking of an adult age 50 years or older.   In most cases, the victim is in an ongoing relationship (such as spouse, partner, family member or caregiver) where society expects there to be a trusting, caring connection.  The phrase “Abuse in Later Life” is often used by domestic violence and sexual assault advocates who work with older victims. 

Who are victims?

Older victims are from a variety of racial and ethnic groups and all economic levels.1  Many older victims are active members of the community.  Some older victims are frail and live with significant health issues, physical disabilities, and/or cognitive limitations.

Who are offenders?

A significant portion of elder abuse is spouse or partner abuse.2  Most offenders are spouses, partners, family members, caregivers and other persons in a relationship where the victim and society expects compassion and caring.3

Sexual assault or stalking in later life may also be committed by strangers.  Strangers may also commit other crimes against older adults, such as scams.  In some case, older adults are targeted because of perceived or actual disabilities or vulnerabilities.

Where does it occur?

Most often abuse occurs in the person’s home, which can include private dwellings or facility settings.   Some forms of abuse, such as stalking, intimidation, and harassment can also occur in public.

How many people are affected by elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation?

National incidence and prevalence data do not exist.  But two recent studies found that 7.6%–11% people 60+ who can answer a phone and pass a basic dementia screen are victims of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.4  But, these studies cannot capture older people at greatest risk: those who live in facilities; who cannot answer or do not have a phone; are too scared to speak because an abuser is close by; or people with dementia.

What are potential risk factors?

Researchers are still exploring risk factors for abuse later life.  Some studies suggest that continuing to live with an intimate partner who has been abusive throughout the relationship; personal problems and dependency of the abuser; social isolation; and physical and/or cognitive limitations or perceived limitations of potential victims may be key risk factors.5

What is the impact of abuse on older people's lives?

Some older victims experience physical injuries and illnesses.  Many older victims experience depression.6 Several studies found that persons who are abused are much more likely to die prematurely.7

Why does it occur?

Research indicates that power and control dynamics such as found with younger battered women often present in elder abuse cases.8  Greed is also a motivator in financial exploitation cases. 

In a small number of cases, well intended caregivers are unable to provide care and an older adult is harmed unintentionally.  Also, a small number of abusers cannot control their behavior due to medical or mental health condition that manifests in aggressive, inappropriate, or violent behavior.

Theories that elder abuse is caused by caregiver stress, anger, substance abuse, or retaliation for previous child abuse have not been supported by research.  Often these issues co-exist with abuse, neglect, or exploitation but do not cause abuse.  These problems may need to be dealt with as separate issues.  But resolving these problems rarely enhances victim safety or improves the quality of an older victim’s life.

Why do victims stay or return to abusers?

There are numerous reasons why victims maintain contact with abusers or feel they cannot leave an abusive relationship.  Older victims of abuse often love or care about the people who harm them.  Keeping the family together may be very important to the victim for many reasons, including religious and cultural beliefs. Some victims fear that they will be seriously hurt or killed if they leave their abusers.  Others do not have the financial resources and/or housing they need to leave.  Medical conditions and disabilities may make living on their own difficult or impossible or the abusive individual may need the victims care.9

What can I do if I think I am being harmed?

  • Call 911 if you are in danger.  Your safety is most important.

  • Remember, you are not alone. Unfortunately, too many women and men are hurt in later life by spouses, partners, family members, caregivers, and others. You are not the only one who has experienced harm.

  • Help is available. There are people who can listen and work with you as you decide what you want to do next. See pages: Get Help and Learn More about Services.

  • Create a safety plan.  Whether you choose to remain in your current living situation or choose to leave, consider contacting an advocate to create a safety plan.  Many domestic violence advocates specialize in safety planning. Advocates can provide information about what you are experiencing and offer information about services and support. For more information about domestic violence programs, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit our Safety Planning page

You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect!

What can I do if I am concerned for an older adult in my life?

  • If you see someone being physically hurt or threatened with a weapon, call a law enforcement emergency line such as 911.

  • Talk to the older adult. Tell them you are concerned for their safety and that you are there to help. Let them know that domestic violence, sexual abuse, and elder abuse do not stop without some sort of outside intervention.

  • Offer to accompany them to speak with an advocate at a domestic violence or sexual assault program or a social worker at an elder abuse agency.

  • Be part of their "safety plan." A safety plan is created by the victim with the help of a professional. The intent is to plan for a victim's safety needs before another violent episode erupts. If you believe they are in immediate danger, call 911.

FAQ Citations