World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is commemorated each year on 15 June to highlight one of the worst manifestations of ageism and inequality in our society, elder abuse.
Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes harm to an adult 60 years and older.
Risk factors for experiencing elder abuse
While older men have the same risk of abuse as women, in some cultures where women have inferior social status, elderly women are at higher risk of neglect and financial abuse (such as seizing their property) when they are widowed. Women may also be at higher risk of more persistent and severe forms of abuse and injury.
A shared living situation is a risk factor for elder abuse. It is not yet clear whether spouses or adult children of older people are more likely to perpetrate abuse. An abuser’s dependency on the older person (often financial) also increases the risk of abuse. In some cases, a long history of poor family relationships may worsen as a result of stress when the older person becomes more care dependent.
Social isolation of caregivers and older persons, and the ensuing lack of social support, is a significant risk factor for elder abuse by caregivers.
Socio-cultural factors that may affect the risk of elder abuse include:
• ageist stereotypes where older adults are depicted as frail, weak and dependent;
• erosion of the bonds between generations of a family;
• systems of inheritance and land rights, affecting the distribution of power and material goods within families;
• migration of young couples, leaving older parents alone in societies where older people were traditionally cared for by their offspring; and
• lack of funds to pay for care.
Within institutions, abuse is more likely to occur where:
• standards for health care, welfare services, and care facilities for elder persons are low;
• staff are poorly trained, remunerated, and overworked;
• the physical environment is deficient; and
• policies operate in the interests of the institution rather than the residents.
Risk factors for Committing elder abuse
It is predicted that by the year 2050, the global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to about 2 billion, with the vast majority of older people living in low- and middle-income countries.
If the proportion of elder abuse victims remains constant, the number of victims will increase rapidly due to population ageing, growing to 320 million victims by 2050.
Around 1 in 6 people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year.
Elder abuse is common
Rates of elder abuse are high in institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 2 in 3 staff reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year.
Abusive acts in institutions may include physically restraining patients, depriving them of dignity (for instance, by leaving them in soiled clothes) and choice over daily affairs; intentionally providing insufficient care (such as allowing them to develop pressure sores); over- and under-medicating and withholding medication from patients; and emotional neglect and abuse.
Emerging evidence indicates that the prevalence of elder abuse in both the community and in institutions have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. A US study, for instance, suggests that rates in the community may have increased by as much as 84%.
Elder abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological consequences.
Elder abuse can lead to physical injuries – ranging from minor scratches and bruises to broken bones and disabling injuries – and serious, sometimes long-lasting, psychological consequences, including depression and anxiety. For older people, the consequences of abuse can be especially serious and convalescence longer. Even relatively minor injuries can cause serious and permanent damage, or even death. A 13-year follow-up study found that victims of elder abuse are twice more likely to die prematurely than people who are not victims of elder abuse.
Elder abuse is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly ageing populations.
Link to the related WHO news release:
Link to WHO fact sheet on elder abuse:
Link to WHO page on elder abuse: