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Psychological Abuse of the Elderly for Family Members and Carers

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What is psychological abuse of an elderly person?

Psychological or emotional abuse occurs when a carer causes emotional pain or stress for an elderly person. A carer may be a family member or a person who is responsible for taking caring of the person. The carer may insult, threaten, humiliate, or harass the person through words or actions. The carer may also ignore the person or isolate him or her from family members, friends, or daily activities. The person's rights may be ignored, limited, or taken from him or her even if the person can think and act for himself or herself. Psychological abuse can happen in the person's home, the carer's home, or a facility, such as a nursing home.

What increases the risk of psychological abuse of an elderly person?

The exact cause of psychological abuse is not known. The following may increase an elderly person's risk of psychological abuse:

  • He or she is older than 75 years.
  • He or she has learning or memory problems.
  • He or she has a long-term condition, such as dementia, diabetes, paralysis, or stroke.
  • He or she has no relatives or friends who can take care of him or her.
  • He or she has difficulty getting along with others.
  • The carer depends heavily on the person for things such as money or housing.
  • The carer drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs.
  • The carer has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness.
  • The carer has a history of family violence, such as physical or sexual abuse.
  • The carer has stress due to work, taking care of the person, or financial problems.

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

The person may be or have any of the following:

  • Often disturbed, scared, or hopeless
  • Avoiding eye contact or not talking openly
  • Anxious, shy, depressed, or withdrawn
  • Low self-esteem
  • Desire to hurt himself or herself, or other people
  • Sudden changes in eating or sleeping patterns or moods
  • Kept inside the house and not allowed to have other people call or visit him or her
  • Not allowed to do his or her daily activities
  • Prevented from deciding or acting for himself or herself

How is psychological abuse of an elderly person diagnosed?

The elderly person's healthcare provider will ask about his or her health. The provider may ask how the carer speaks to and treats him or her. The provider may also ask about how the carer takes care of the person each day.

How is psychological abuse of an elderly person treated?

An elderly person who has been psychologically abused may be placed in an adult day care. Special services may be offered to ensure the person's safety and health. Treatment may also include any of the following:

  • Counseling: Psychological abuse may cause the person to feel scared, depressed, or anxious. His or her healthcare provider may suggest that he or she see a counselor to talk about how he or she is feeling.
  • Medicines: Healthcare providers may give medicines to calm, relax, or help the person sleep. Other medicines may also be given if he or she has any medical conditions.

What are the risks of psychological abuse of an elderly person?

If left untreated, the elderly person may develop serious health and emotional problems. He or she may also become depressed.

How can I help an elderly person?

  • Report psychological abuse: It may be hard to report psychological abuse, but it is very important. Healthcare providers can help the elderly person if he or she is at risk for or is a victim of psychological abuse.
  • Attend follow-up visits with the elderly person: The person's healthcare provider may talk to you, the person, his or her family, friends, or those who should be held responsible for psychological abuse. This includes what may happen if psychological abuse does not stop.

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:

When should I contact the elderly person's healthcare provider?

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

When should I seek immediate care for the elderly person or call 911?

  • He or she feels like hurting himself or herself, or someone else.
  • The elderly person feels that he or she cannot cope with his or her condition or recovery from it.
  • He or she has shortness of breath, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

Care Agreement

The elderly 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 condition or situation. He or she can then discuss options with healthcare providers. Working with providers will help the person decide on actions that will be taken, and care and treatment that will be given. The person always has the right to refuse actions or 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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