Defining Elder Abuse

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

Last updated: October 7, 2021

The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as:

A single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person.

Abuse types explained

Compass is aware that elder abuse 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.

The types of abuse elders experience

When we know what to look for, the better we are at identifying elder abuse.

These are the five commonly recognised types of abuse older people experience.

Financial Abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse

Physical Abuse

Sexual Abuse


The negative impact of ageism

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

  • Dignity1

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 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. Research shows that in two-thirds of reported cases, abuse is perpetrated by a son or daughter.2

  • 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 are identified as having substance abuse issues or a gambling problem

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.

Need information or advice on elder abuse now?
Need information or advice on elder abuse now?
CALL 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374)
In an emergency call 000

This free number will redirect you to an existing phone service near you. This is not a 24-hour line. Call operating times will vary. A collaboration between the Australian, state and territory governments.