Defining Elder Abuse

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

Last updated: 27 September 2022

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.

The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study released in 2021 indicates that one in six older Australians (15%) reported experiencing abuse in the previous 12 months.1

Brain icon on pink circle

Psychological abuse (12%)

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. Click here to read more.

Person icon on yellow circle

Neglect (3%)

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

Dollar icon on purple circle

Financial abuse (2%)

Financial abuse is theft or misuse of an older person’s money, assets or property. Click here to read more.

Hand icon on green circle

Physical abuse (2%)

Physical abuse is an act that causes physical pain, injury or a combination of both. Click here to read more.

X icon on a blue background

Sexual abuse (1%)

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. Click here to read more.

Who experiences elder abuse?

The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study indicated that one in six older Australians (15%) reported experiencing abuse in the previous 12 months.2 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 abuse3

  • Older people who are living with a partner are less likely to experience elder abuse4

  • Older people with a disability or long-term medical condition are twice as likely to report experiencing any form of abuse5

  • Less frequent contact with family members and friends is associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing elder abuse6 

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

  • Dignity7

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.

Every one of us at every age is entitled to be treated fairly and enjoy the same opportunities. This does not diminish with age.

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.8

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.

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.