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Types of Elder Abuse

When people think about elder abuse, it’s not uncommon for them to have a specific sense of what it looks like, based either on their own experiences or how they’ve seen it portrayed in movies or TV shows.

What’s important to understand is that elder abuse happens in a variety of forms, some of which even those who are being directly or indirectly affected by it may not already be familiar with.

On their website, the American Psychological Association (APA) has defined the following seven categories of elder abuse:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Financial/Material Exploitation
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Self-Neglect

Each of these is described in more detail below:

Physical Abuse

“Use of physical force that may result in bodily injury, physical pain, or impairment.” – APA

Because the signs of it are often visible (bruises, swelling, etc.) or noticeable (tenderness, a limp, etc.), this form of abuse is perhaps the one people are most likely to be aware of.

Emotional Abuse

“Infliction of anguish, pain, or distress through verbal or non-verbal acts.” – APA

This form of abuse is most likely to be carried out either by family members or those in a position of authority, like a nurse or institutional worker. Because the signs of it, unlike physical abuse, aren’t visible, it can be hard to detect.

Sexual Abuse

“Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly person.” – APA

As uncomfortable as this form of abuse is to think about, and even harder for victims to report — either because of embarrassment or shame — it’s important to remember that the only way to stop sexual abuse from happening is being willing to talk about it.

Financial/Material Exploitation

“Illegal or improper use of an elder’s funds, property, or assets.” – APA

This form of abuse is as likely to be perpetrated by a family member as by a stranger. Financial exploitation may look like anything from an adult child stealing money from their parent’s bank account to a scammer tricking somebody into revealing their credit card information. (Learn more about scamming.)


“Refusal, or failure, to fulfill any part of a person’s obligations or duties to an elderly person.” – APA

Very often, members of the elder community are at the mercy of family members for even their most basic needs, as a result of either physical or mental limitations brought about by old age. Unfortunately, this makes them especially vulnerable to neglect.


“Desertion of an elderly person by an individual who has physical custody of the elder or by a person who has assumed responsibility for providing care to the elder.” – APA

Like neglect, when a senior becomes reliant on somebody for their basic needs, the intentional (or possibly unintentionally) loss of that person in their life can be catastrophic. Particularly so if it happens without warning, leaving the elder individual confused and afraid.


“Behaviors of an elderly person that threaten the elder’s health or safety.” – APA

Last but not least, it’s entirely possible that a senior may be the cause of their own neglect. This happens more often than most people realize, either as a result of pride (they don’t want to feel like a burden), despair (things don’t seem worth the effort), an unwillingness to communicate in an honest way with family members, mental illness (they don’t realize they’re doing it), or a variety of other reasons.