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Recognizing Older Adult Abuse

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How to Identify Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is any intended or careless act that causes injury or harm to an older person. This injury can be inflicted by family members, friends, or caretakers. Elder abuse is typically broken into three types: physical & sexual abuse, emotional & mental abuse, and financial abuse. If you suspect an elderly person you know is being abused, you should report the abuse to the necessary authorities so the person is protected and cared for properly.

Part 1: Identifying Physical & Sexual Abuse

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1. Check for any signs of injury. 

An elderly person who is being abused might have visible bruising, welts, or other injuries. Physical abuse is when someone uses physical force to inflict bodily harm, injury, or impairment. If an elder is being physically abused, they may experience hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, shaking, slapping, etc. You may notice signs of injury anywhere, such as on the elderly person’s face, arms, legs, or back. [1]

Bruises may be from being hit by a variety of sources, such as hands, belts, or other. Bruises can also be caused by restraints that were applied to the wrists and ankles. Look for cuts and scrapes as well. Cuts may be small or large, and can appear in groups or clusters.

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2. Note if the person’s clothing is torn or damaged. 

Look at the person’s clothing for any rips, tears, or burns, as this could be a sign the person has been mistreated or mishandled. [2]

You should also note if the person’s personal items are damaged, such as their glasses, jewelry, or other items that have significant value to the person. This could be a sign someone is abusing or bullying them by damaging their possessions.

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3. Look for any signs of poor care.

If the elderly person is being taken care of by someone else, you should note if the person starts to display signs of poor care. Poor care can result in unclean or soiled clothing, poor hygiene, bed sores, or sudden weight loss, which are all forms of physical abuse.

You should also note if the person’s nails and hair appear overgrown or unkempt, and if they develop dental issues due to poor dental care. These are considered symptoms of physical abuse due to neglect by a caretaker.


4. Keep tabs on the person’s medication and dosage levels. 

Physical abuse of elders can also occur through the improper dosage of medication or over-medicating. If the person’s medication is administered by someone other than you, you may want to confirm the proper dosage is being given to the person and they are not being over-medicated. [3]


5. Pay attention to any genital infections or issues. 

Sexual abuse of elders can and does happen, leaving the elder physically and emotionally scarred. Notice if the person complains of genital irritation or develops a genital infection, such as an STI. Have the person’s doctor confirm the genital infection or STI so it can be treated right away. [4]

You should also check if the person’s inner thighs or genital area is bruised, as this can indicate sexual abuse.


6. Note if the person has difficulty walking or sitting. 

Maybe the person is suddenly unwilling to get out of bed or has difficulty walking around, when previously they were fine and mobile. This immobility may be a sign that they have experienced sexual abuse, leaving their body bruised or injured, especially in the pelvis area. [5]

Part 2: Identifying Emotional & Mental Abuse


1. Ask the person if they feel threatened or scared.  

It can be challenging to identify emotional and mental abuse, as there may be no physical indications that abuse is happening. Though it can be difficult for the elderly to discuss their abuse, you can try to ask the person if they feel threatened or scared by a caretaker or person they are in contact with. Do this one-on-one, out of the vicinity of anyone else, so the elder feels safe and able to discuss any emotional and mental abuse they may be experiencing.

Start by asking “Are you being treated well?” or “How do you like your caretaker?” You can also let the person know you are available to talk about any issues they may be having, noting “Please know you can reach out to me if there are any issues with your care.”


2. Note if the person appears withdrawn or depressed. 

Sometimes the elderly person cannot verbally express their experience of abuse and may instead withdraw from others out of fear or anxiety. They may also appear depressed and refuse to leave their room or go outside to socialize with others. [6]


3. Pay attention to any changes in the person’s routine or demeanor. 

Any negative changes to the person’s demeanor should be taken as a sign that something is wrong and you should consider if the person is being neglected or mistreated. This could be a refusal to go for daily walks, a change in appetite, or turning down visits and contact with others. These disruptions in routine could be a sign that the person is suffering from emotional and mental abuse and is too afraid to let anyone know what is going on. [7]


4. Check for signs of anxiety, agitation, or fear around others. 

Note if the person appears frightened around certain individuals, with wide eyes, nervous ticks, or a lack of eye contact. These signs could indicate that the person is fearful around someone due to abuse. [8]

The person may also express other signs of agitation, such as biting fingernails, pulling their own hair, fidgeting with their clothing, or stuttering their words when they speak to you in front of their abuser.

Part 3: Identifying Financial Abuse


1. Look for any suspicious activity in the person’s bank accounts. 

This could be withdraws in large amounts from their bank accounts or consistently large amounts being withdrawn from their bank accounts. You may also notice ATM withdraws from their account which could not have been authorized by the person, especially if they are bedridden. [9]

You should also be weary of large payments made to charity organizations that appear suspicious or dubious, as well as payments for items the person would have no use for or do not appear to have in their possession. These actions could indicate that the person is being scammed by a fake charity organization or giving a donation to a charity under false pretenses. Someone may be using the person’s credit card to pay for items for themselves, a clear indication of financial abuse.


2. Take note if the person changes their will or power of attorney. 

Sudden changes to the person’s will or to their power of attorney should be regarded with suspicion, especially if the change benefits someone who is not known to their family or who appears to be taking advantage of them. You should consult the person’s lawyer to determine why the person decided to adjust their will and confirm that it was done when the person was of sound mind and body.


3. Check if the person has overdue bills or expenses. 

If the person has stacks of unpaid or overdue bills and expenses that are usually paid on time every month, this may be a sign that someone is diverting their money for their own benefit. This could then cause the person to miss payments and perhaps be unaware that they are missing payments, especially if they are bedridden or on medication. [10]

You should compare the person’s bank statements to the overdue bills or expenses to confirm that money came out of the person’s bank account, but it did not go to pay the bills. It likely instead went right into the pocket of the person who is financially abusing the elderly person.


4. Pay attention to any missing items of value. 

Neglectful caretakers may steal valuable items from their clients and either sell the items or keep them. Note if the elderly person is missing jewelry, art, or silverware, as well as any other items of high value. This could be a gradual issue, where items disappear over time, or a sudden theft, where all the items are taken at once. [11]

Part 4: Reporting the Abuse


1. Call the police. 

If you have witnessed outright forms of abuse, you should call the police and report the perpetrator. Describe in detail what you have witnessed and be prepared to answer follow-up questions.


2. Get in touch with the family of the elderly person. 

If you have witnessed abuse and know the family of the elderly person, consider contacting them to inform them of the situation. While this is not a direct way to help the elderly person, it will allow the family to decide how to handle the situation of abuse.


3. Reach out to the NWT Help Line. 

If you suspect that an elderly person is being abused, consider calling the NWT Help Line and reporting the abuse anonymously. There are many different hotlines to call. You can also contact some agencies online. Some different resources include:

  • Alison McAteer House – 1-866-223-7775

  • Seniors’ Information Line – 1-866-661-0878

  • Sutherland House – 1-877-872-5925


*All images and content courtesy of, from the article

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