Domestic Violence & Emotional Abuse in the Elderly

Updated April 17, 2017

Elder abuse is categorised as a form of domestic violence, since it generally takes place in the victim's place of residence. It can be defined as the intentional actions of a person that cause harm, or risk of harm, to a senior. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, 10 per cent of seniors suffer some type of abuse, most frequently at the hands of a trusted person known well by the victim. The Center's research indicates that for every case that is reported, five cases go unreported. Abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. Elder abuse also includes a senior's own self-abuse and neglect.

Physical Abuse

Inflicting pain upon, causing physical harm to or threatening to harm a senior is termed as physical abuse. Physical abuse is often perpetrated by family caregivers who are experiencing severe stress and difficulties in coping with their daily lives and the duties of care giving for a family member.

Emotional Abuse

All types of abuse essentially have an element of emotional abuse attached to them. However, emotional abuse as a separate category of abuse is defined as inflicting mental suffering and anguish upon a senior through verbal and non-verbal acts. This can include intimidation and threats. It generally takes the form of systematically wearing away at the senior's self-confidence, sense of self-worth and trust in their own perceptions. The victims of emotional abuse are often the most vulnerable of seniors, those suffering from dementia.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is the performance of a sexual act upon a senior without their consent. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that of the 284 reported cases of elder sexual abuse in 2003, the average age of victims was 78 years old, most victims were female, and those with dementia were most frequently abused by persons known to them, such as family members. The study found that most of the offenders had planned to commit the offence, but had no intention of using a weapon or acting violently.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is defined as the theft of, unauthorised misuse or concealment of the victim's money, property or other assets. Apart from the very obvious theft and misuse of money by people known to the victims, financial abuse also refers to the unethical actions of companies that try to sell inappropriate services to seniors. Examples of such actions include insurance companies that try to make seniors change existing insurance policies in favour of new, more expensive, and less appropriate products, and lenders who try to sell seniors reverse mortgages, which jeopardise their homes and long-term financial security.


Seniors can be victims of their own self-abuse. This is defined as a senior's inability to meet their own physical, psychological and social needs. This can be a particularly sensitive issue as the self-abuse may indicate underlying mental health issues. Self-abuse can include the hoarding of items and animals, isolation, lack of hygiene, failure to eat regularly, and failure to take medications as prescribed.


Everyone in society has a moral obligation to keep seniors safe from harm. Most professionals in contact with seniors, such as doctors, social workers, and federal, state and local government employees are mandated by law to report suspected abuse. Individuals suspecting abuse should call the police if a senior is believed to be in immediate danger. If the danger is not immediate, anonymous reports can be made to local adult protective services offices or, in the case of seniors in nursing homes, to the long-term care ombudsman.

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About the Author

Holly Johns attained a graduate degree in communications from Oxford University in 1987, and started writing professionally shortly thereafter. She has more than 20 years of experience in journalism and public and media relations, and has been published widely in publications, including "The Guardian," "The Daily Mail," "U.S. Stars and Stripes," and "Time Out London."