Defining Elder Abuse

The abuse of older people is complex and confronting. Understanding it starts by defining it.

Last updated: 6 November 2023

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is defined by the National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study Report as:

Elder abuse is a single or repeated act - or a failure to act, including threats, that results in harm or distress to an older person. These occur when there is an expectation of trust and /or there is a power imbalance between the person responsible and the older person.

  • The abuse of older people comes in many forms. It can be financial, emotional or psychological, physical, sexual, or neglect, and can include stand-alone abuse or a combination of the different types of abuse

  • It can be intentional or unintentional

  • It can occur once, or many times

  • It can be carried out by someone known to the older person, like a family member, friend, professional, or paid caregiver

Whilst elder abuse affects all genders across all walks of life, the abuse disproportionately affects more women than men. Often more than one type of abuse can be used. Some forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse, are criminal acts.

When we know what to look for, the better we are at identifying elder abuse. Below is a diagram of the five commonly recognised types of abuse older people experience, along with a brief description. More detailed information is available below on each subtype page.

Brain icon on pink circle

Psychological abuse

Psychological abuse is also commonly known as emotional abuse. It is any act that causes emotional pain, anguish, or distress, or is demeaning to an individual. Learn more

Person icon on yellow circle


Neglect is the failure to meet an older person’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, warmth or essential medical care. Learn more

Dollar icon on purple circle

Financial abuse

Financial abuse is theft or misuse of an older person’s money, assets or property. Learn more

Hand icon on green circle

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is an act that causes physical pain, injury or a combination of both. Learn more

X icon on a blue background

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is any behaviour of a sexual nature, done to an older person without their consent. This includes physical interactions and non-contact acts of a sexual nature. Learn more

Who experiences elder abuse?

The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study indicates that one in six older Australians (15%) reported experiencing abuse in the previous 12 months. The incidence of elder abuse does however vary. Here are a few insights from the study that help us understand how elder abuse affects particular groups in our community.

  • Older people with poorer health or a disability are more likely to experience elder abuse

  • Older people who are living with a partner are less likely to experience elder abuse

  • Older people with a disability or long-term medical condition are twice as likely to report experiencing any form of abuse

  • Less frequent contact with family members and friends is associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing elder abuse 

The negative impact of ageism and elder abuse

Every one of us at every age is entitled to be treated fairly and enjoy the same opportunities. This does not diminish with age. But discrimination based on age is present everywhere. It can distort our attitudes to older people and contribute to an environment where:

  • Elder abuse goes unnoticed

  • Action to prevent elder abuse isn’t taken

  • Older people don’t feel like they can speak up

  • Older people are prevented or limited from contributing or participating as full citizens

It’s important to know that the rights of older people are protected by law and enshrined in principles established by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Their Principles for Older Persons state that every older person has the right to:

  • Independence

  • Participation

  • Care

  • Self-fulfillment

  • Dignity

In Australia we aspire to a society that:

  • Respects and values older people

  • Appreciates the contribution that older people make to their communities

  • Affirms the dignity and worth of every person

Common factors that increase the risk of elder abuse

Every individual and every life situation is different. But there are some common factors that can increase the risk of elder abuse.

These factors fall into three categories: social, economic, and personal. Several factors from multiple categories often contribute to an individual's experience of abuse.




How several factors can magnify risk

Who is capable of elder abuse?

Unfortunately, elder abuse is mostly carried out by an individual or group the older person trusts. Elder abuse is mostly committed by family members, with adult children being the most common perpetrators, followed by intimate partners, then partners of adult children, and grandchildren to a much lesser extent.

Other common characteristics of known perpetrators include:

  • The majority of perpetrators are aged 35 to 54 years of age, regardless of gender

  • In many cases, the older person lives with the abuser

  • A significant number of abusers were reported to have a range of problems including mental heath, alcohol and financial problems.

It is important to note that although many carers go out of their way to genuinely care for the person they are looking after, and may simply be in need of more information and support, this is never an excuse for the mistreatment of an older person.

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More information on elder abuse

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