What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is a single or repeated act—or lack of appropriate action—occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.

Elder abuse is:

  • More common than you think. 1 in 6 older Australians report experiencing abuse.
  • Close to home. Perpetrators are often in the family, most commonly adult children.
  • Hidden and underreported. Almost two thirds of older people don't seek help when they are abused (61%).

Source: National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study: Final Report, December 2021

Forms of elder abuse

Elder abuse can take many forms including:

  • Psychological abuse

    Psychological or emotional abuse is an act that causes emotional pain or injury to an older person. It includes, but is not limited to, insults or threats, humiliation or disrespect and controlling behaviours such as confining or isolating the older person.

  • Financial abuse

    Financial abuse is the misuse or theft of an older person's money or assets. It includes, but is not limited to, using finances without permission, using a legal document such as an enduring power of attorney for purposes contrary to the interests of the older person, withholding care for financial gain, and selling or transferring property against the older person's wishes or without the person's knowledge.

  • Physical abuse

    Physical abuse is an act that causes physical pain or injury to an older person. It includes, but is not limited to, actions such as hitting, pushing or kicking.

    Inappropriate use of drugs or physical restraints is also an example of physical abuse.

  • Sexual abuse

    Sexual abuse is any sexual behaviour performed without an older person's consent. It includes sexual contact and non-contact acts of a sexual nature that cause an older person to feel uncomfortable or threatened, or cause physical hurt.
  • Social abuse

    Forcing someone to become isolated by restricting their access to others including family, friends or services. This can be used to prevent others from finding out about the abuse.
  • Neglect

    Neglect is the failure of a carer, or other responsible person, to meet an older person's basic needs such as food, housing and essential medical care. It includes, but is not limited to, providing inadequate food, drink or supervision, isolating the older person, allocating medication inappropriately and failing to meet physical needs (e.g. in relation to hygiene and skin care).

Signs of elder abuse

If you suspect an older person is being subjected to elder abuse, pay close attention and see if you can identify any of the signs or behaviour changes* below.

If you suspect elder abuse is happening, don't wait for proof. Call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 651 192 for free, confidential advice and referral. 

Changes in general behaviour

  • Fear of one or many persons
  • Irritability or being easily upset
  • Worry or anxiety for no obvious reason
  • Depression, anxiety or withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits
  • Rigid posture and avoidance of contact
  • Avoidance of eye contact or continuous darting of eyes
  • Contradictory statements unrelated to mental confusion
  • Reluctance to talk openly

Psychological abuse

  • Reluctance to talk
  • Anxiety, nervousness, fear, apathy, resignation
  • Withdrawal, avoidance of eye contact
  • Rocking or huddling up
  • Loss of interest in self or environment
  • Insomnia or sleep deprivation
  • Unusual behaviour or confusion not associated with illness

Financial abuse

  • Lack of money to purchase medication, food or personal items
  • Defaulting on payment of rent
  • Removal of assets from the family home or unauthorised use of assets

Physical abuse

  • Injuries such as skin trauma (e.g. bruising, skin tears, burns, welts, unexplained fractures and sprains)
  • Signs of restraint (e.g. at the wrists or waist)
  • Unexplained behaviour changes suggesting under-medication or over-medication
  • Unusual patterns of injury

Sexual abuse

  • Unexplained bruising or infections
  • Reports of threats or coercion of a sexual nature

Social abuse

  • anxiety, sadness or grief at loss of contact with others
  • withdrawal or listlessness
  • loss of self esteem


  • Decline in hygiene (e.g. bad odour, urine rash)
  • Malnourishment, weight loss, dehydration (dark urine, dry tongue, lax skin)
  • Bed sores (sacrum, hips, heels, elbows)
  • Being over-sedated or under-sedated
  • Broken or missing aids such as spectacles, dentures, hearing aid or walking frame


*Source: The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners 2014, Abuse and violence: working with our patients in general practice (4th edition), Melbourne.