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Physical Abuse of an Elderly Person for Family Members and Carers

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jun 6, 2022.

What is physical abuse of an elderly person?

Physical abuse of an elderly person is harm done to a person who is 60 years or older by a carer. A carer may be a family member or someone who is responsible for giving care. The carer may hit, slap, kick, push, pull hair, burn, or force feed the person. The carer may also give him or her the wrong amount of medicine. Physical abuse also includes sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is when someone has sexual contact with the person without his or her consent. Physical abuse can happen in the person's home, the carer's home, or a facility, such as a nursing home.

What increases an elderly person's risk for physical abuse?

  • Depression or social isolation
  • Learning or memory problems
  • A need for help with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating, or using the bathroom
  • A long-term condition, such as dementia, diabetes, paralysis, or stroke
  • No relatives or friends who can give care
  • Trouble getting along with others, or being aggressive
  • Crowded living conditions, or living in a facility that does not have enough caregivers
  • A carer who depends heavily on the person for things such as money or housing
  • A carer who drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs
  • A carer who has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness
  • A carer who has a history of family violence, such as physical or sexual abuse
  • A carer who has stress from work, taking care of the elder, or financial problems

What are the signs and symptoms of physical abuse of an elderly person?

  • Repeated falls or injuries, or old injuries that were not treated when they happened
  • Scratches, bite marks, or marks from objects used for restraining, such as belts, ropes, or electrical cords
  • Broken or dislocated bones
  • Cuts or bruises, especially on both upper arms (grab marks)
  • Scars or burns from cigarettes, irons, or hot water
  • Blood or discharge coming from the nose, mouth, or genitals

How is physical abuse of an elderly person diagnosed?

The person's healthcare provider will examine his or her body closely for injuries caused by physical abuse. The provider will ask where the person lives and if he or she lives alone. He or she will also ask who takes care of the person, and how often care is given. He or she will also ask about activities the person enjoys, and about his or her family or friends. The person may also need any of the following:

  • Blood and urine tests may be done to check for health problems, such as malnutrition or infection. Blood tests can also give information about any bruises the person has.
  • A pelvic exam is done in women so healthcare providers can check for any injuries from the abuse.
  • A culture and smear exam is used to take a sample of discharge from the genitals. The sample is sent to a lab for tests.
  • X-rays may show if any bones are broken or out of place. If the person has any pressure sores, x-rays may show any infection that has developed there.
  • CT or MRI pictures may be used to check for bleeding in the person's brain.

How is physical abuse of an elderly person treated?

A person who has been physically abused may be placed in an adult day care. Special services may be offered to make sure he or she is safe and healthy.

  • Counseling may be recommended. A counselor can help the person talk about how he or she is feeling. Physical abuse may cause him or her to feel scared, depressed, or anxious. A counselor can help the person with these feelings.
  • Medicines may be given to help ease the person's pain. He or she may need antibiotic medicine or a tetanus shot for an open wound. Medicines may also be given if he or she has other medical conditions.
  • Surgery may be needed to treat injuries. Surgery may return bones to their normal position if there is a broken bone. Surgery may also be needed to correct a deformity or treat other injuries.

How can I help the person?

Social workers and healthcare providers can help you make sure the person has what he or she needs. The following are ways you can help the person:

  • Report physical abuse. It may be hard to report physical abuse, but it is very important. Healthcare providers can help the person if he or she is at risk for or is a victim of physical abuse.
  • Attend follow-up visits with the person. A healthcare provider may talk to you, the person, his or her family, or friends. They may want to talk with anyone who should be held responsible for physical abuse.
  • Help make the person's home safer. Look for anything in the person's home that could cause a fall or injury. Examples include area rugs, electric cords, or furniture in a hallway. Remove or secure anything that might make the person trip. Make sure walking areas in the home have good lighting. The person may need a cane, walker, or other equipment to help him or her walk more steadily. This helps prevent a fall or injury that leaves the person at risk for abuse.
  • Help the person get tools to help with activities of daily living. Examples include a chair to sit on in the shower, a hook to help with buttons, and a shoehorn to help slip on shoes. Devices can make the person less dependant on carers who may abuse him or her.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • National Center on Elder Abuse
    c/o University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine
    Alhambra , CA 91803
    Phone: 1- 855 - 500-3537
    Web Address:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • The person feels like hurting himself, herself, or someone else.
  • The person has shortness of breath, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • The person feels that he or she cannot cope with the abuse, or his or her recovery from it.

When should I call the person's doctor?

  • He or she cannot get to his or her next office visit.
  • He or she has new signs and symptoms.
  • You have or the person has questions or concerns about his or her condition or care.

Care Agreement

The person has the right to help plan his or her own care. To help with this plan, the person must learn about his or her health condition, and how it may be treated. He or she can then discuss treatment options with healthcare providers. They can help him or her decide what care and treatment may be used. The person always has the right to refuse treatment.The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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