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Physical Abuse of the Elderly

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What is physical abuse of an elderly person?

Physical abuse occurs when a carer harms you or places you in danger. A carer may be a family member or someone who is responsible for taking caring for you. The carer may hit, slap, kick, push, pull your hair, burn, or force feed you. The carer may also give you the wrong amount of medicine. Physical abuse also includes sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is when someone has sexual contact with you without your consent. Physical abuse can happen in your own home, the carer's home, or a facility, such as a nursing home.

What causes physical abuse of an elderly person?

  • 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 you 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?

  • 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 your nose, mouth, or genitals

How is physical abuse diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will look for injuries caused by physical abuse. Your provider may ask you about any injuries you have. Your provider will ask where you live and if you live alone. Your provider will also ask who takes care of you, and how often care is given. Your provider will also ask about activities you enjoy, and about your family or friends. You may also need any of the following:

  • Blood and urine tests may be done to check for health problems.
  • 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. X-rays of your chest and abdomen may also be taken.
  • CT or MRI pictures may be used to check for bleeding in your brain.

How is physical abuse treated?

You may need to stay somewhere safe, such as an adult day care. Special services may be offered to you to make sure you are safe and healthy. You may also need any of the following:

  • Counseling may be recommended. A counselor can help you talk about how you are feeling. Physical abuse may cause you to feel scared, depressed, or anxious. A counselor can help you with these feelings.
  • Medicines may be used to help ease your pain. You may need antibiotic medicine or a tetanus shot if you have an open wound. Medicines may also be given if you have other medical conditions.
  • Surgery may be needed to treat injuries. Surgery may return bones to their normal position if you have a broken bone. You may also need surgery to correct a deformity or treat other injuries.

What can I do to help myself?

  • Report physical abuse. It may be hard to report physical abuse, but it is very important.
  • Go to follow-up visits. Your healthcare provider may talk to you, your family, friends, or those who should be held responsible for physical abuse. This may include what may happen if the abuse does not stop.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about available resources. For example, resources include help with finances or transportation to medical appointments. You may need to update your will or life insurance policy. You may need dental work or help with your hearing. Your provider or a social worker may be able to help you find experts who can help you. Your provider can also help you find a dietitian to help with your nutrition. Resources can help improve the quality of your life, and make you less dependent on carers.
  • An occupational therapist can help with activities of daily living. Examples include helping you choose a cane or walker to make it easier and safer to walk by yourself. A shower chair can make bathing yourself safer. A buttonhook and a shoehorn can make it easier for you to get dressed. An occupational therapist can also make your home safer by removing or securing area rugs, electric cords, or furniture you might trip on.

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:

  • You feel like hurting yourself or someone else.
  • You have shortness of breath, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You feel that you cannot cope with the abuse, or your recovery from it.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You cannot get to your next office visit.
  • You have new signs and symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have 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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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.