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For older people

For older people

For older people

Elder abuse and family violence

Elder abuse is a form of family or domestic violence that is experienced by older people. Like family violence, elder abuse is about one person having power and control over another person.

It is defined as “any action, or deliberate inaction, by a person in a position of trust which causes harm to an older person.” (World Health Organization, 2002).

Although family violence and elder abuse both cause harm to elders, family violence and aged care workers have often provided different support pathways.

What is elder abuse? How can it be recognised?

Elder abuse can take the form of domestic violence, such as psychological and financial abuse.

However, elder abuse is often not as readily identified as abuse by other family members and workers.

There are some abuse tactics that older women and those with disabilities are more at risk from, including:

Physical abuse

  • Inappropriate handling
  • Taking away or controlling an aid such as moving a wheelchair or walker out of reach
  • Using medication to sedate
  • Providing care in a cruel or rough manner

Sexual abuse

  • Sexual assault
  • Force or coercion to take part in unwanted sexual activity
  • Withholding needed care in exchange for sexual favours

Psychological/emotional abuse

  • Denying the right to make decisions due to their cognitive state
  • Convincing the older person that they couldn’t cope without the carer
  • Denying access to ‘small pleasures’
  • Talking about ‘how hard it is to provide care’ in front of the older person

Financial abuse

  • Using a power of attorney to withhold money or misuse finances
  • Not allowing the person to keep or carry their own money
  • Withholding knowledge of their bank account balance or household bills paid


  • Poor hygiene or refusing to wash the older person
  • Withholding medication, personal or medical care
  • Withdrawing care or equipment that immobilizes or leaves the older person without a way to call for help
  • Refusing or delaying assistance following a personal accident or spillage
  • Receiving the career’s pension without providing the care

Elder abuse is not:

  • Professional misconduct – by paid employees such as carers/nurses
  • Unequal consumer transactions or scams that target older people
  • Criminal acts perpetrated by a stranger on an older person
  • Self neglect which is not regarded as elder abuse in Australia

Is it abuse... or stress?

Incidents of violence and abuse on older people are sometimes dismissed as being the result of ‘caregiver stress’.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Abusers will often claim their actions are simply the result of stress caused by caring for the elderly person. In many cases however, the perpetrator is not in a direct caring role. The victim of abuse may themselves be providing care for the perpetrator (for example, where an elderly mother is still providing care for her abusive adult son).

However, there is never an excuse for abusing another person, regardless of how much stress a caregiver is under.

I’m worried about someone – what can I do?

If you suspect that a friend, family member, neighbour—or anyone else—is suffering from elder abuse, there are steps you can take to help.

As with other forms of family violence, victims/survivors may be unwilling or unable to tell you about their abuse.

Ask direct, non-accusing questions, listen and believe what they tell you, and support them to make their own decisions.

Respond in a caring manner. You may be the first person they have ever told about the abuse. Understand that it was a difficult decision to do so.

Some questions you could ask:

  • Are you afraid of x or anyone else at home?
  • Has anyone threatened to put you in a nursing home?
  • Are you being mistreated?
  • Do you feel safe within your relationship?
  • You mentioned that x loses their temper. Can you tell me more about that?
  • Do you feel safe in your home?
  • You seem to be concerned about x.  Does their behaviour ever frighten you?
  • I see a lot of people with injuries like yours. Sometimes they’re a result of a family argument. Has this ever happened to you?
  • I’ve come across several people who are victims of abuse and so now I make it a habit to ask people if they are abused or know anyone who has been abused. Do you know anyone who is abused? 

If a person discloses elder abuse:

  • Respond with kindness and maintain an attitude that does not threaten, blame, or make judgements about the person, the abuser, or the choices they have made. This may only make the person defensive, or cause them to defend the abuser
  • Believe the person and be willing to listen
  • Let the person know that they can count on you to be supportive
  • Provide choices, not interventions — empower the person to take control of their life. Do not tell them what to do or pressure them to leave the perpetrator. They know the dynamics of the situation and must make the decision themselves
  • Let the person know (even if they deny abuse has happened) that it’s not their fault, they are not alone (abuse can happen to anyone), and that there is help available

Please DON’T respond this way:

  • Never tell the victim what they should do, in your opinion
  • Never insist on your own timetable for changes
  • Never confront a suspected abuser

Some suggested responses are:

Sometimes people feel that it is their fault. They think somehow they caused the anger and abuse. Violence is the other person’s responsibility — not yours.

What can I do to help you feel safe?

I’m really glad that you trusted me enough to talk to me about this.

What you have just described to me is violence and that is against the law.

Family violence caseworkers for elder abuse victims/survivors often suggest remedies or pathways such as:

  • Support groups
  • Safety planning
  • Refuges
  • Legal advocacy

Links and related resources