Understanding Elder Abuse

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is defined by the World Health Organisation 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.”

Importantly, elder abuse occurs within the context of a relationship of trust. This might be an older person experiencing abuse perpetrated by a family member (such as an adult child), a friend or neighbour, or a paid caregiver. 

The abuse of an older person can take one of several types, including:

  • Financial abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological or emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect

Financial abuse is the mostly commonly reported type in Queensland. Sadly, when an older person experiences one type of abuse they are likely to experience multiple types. 

It can be a single act, or a number of repeated acts. It can be both intentional or unintentional acts—with some perpetrators not recognising that their behaviour constitutes abuse. 

You can find out more information about the types of elder abuse in our resources below. 

Current estimates suggest that between 2 and 14% of older people may experience abuse in any given year. With an ageing population, Australia will see increasing rates of older people over the next few decades, making this an important issue to respond to. 


Who is most vulnerable?

Research shows that there is no single type of victim to elder abuse, just as there is no single type of perpetrator. 

However, there are several recognised risk factors that may increase an older person’s vulnerability to experiencing abuse, such as:

  • Being female
  • Living alone
  • Cultural or linguistic differences
  • Limited financial literacy
  • Financial difficulties and being dependant on others
  • Reduced physical or mental capacity
  • Lack of contact with others
  • Family conflict and relationship issues

Some of these risk factors cannot be modified. But there are a range of steps an older person can take to help to protect themselves from abuse. 


How to Prevent Elder Abuse

There are a range of ways that older people themselves, their supporters and the general community can work together to prevent abuse and safeguard older people:

  • Addressing ageism — one of the recognised drivers of elder abuse in our community is ageism, which is discrimination or mistreatment of a person based on their age. Addressing negative views and stereotypes of older people, and the sense of entitlement over older people’s belongings, can help to prevent acts of abuse.  
  • Creating awareness — the issue of elder abuse is under-recognised within the generally community, with many people not knowing how to recognise the common signs of abuse or what to do if they were to suspect abuse was occurring. Community education is an important component of a whole-of-community approach to preventing elder abuse. 
  • Strengthening protective factors—there are several factors recognised as helping to protect an older person from experiencing abuse, including: 

- Maintaining strong social connections

- Controlling one’s own financial and legal affairs

- Setting goals and plans for the future

- Seeking independent and professional advice

- Creating a safety plan


How to Recognise Elder Abuse

Being able to recognise elder abuse early is all about learning the common signs of abuse. Some of the more common signs include unexplained changes in:

  • The older person’s behaviour, mood or appearance
  • Financial circumstances and ability to pay for basics
  • Legal arrangements that may not be in their best interests
  • Living arrangements where someone else moves in with them

There are also a range of signs specific to various forms of abuse. Find out more about the common signs of abuse here. 


How to Respond to Elder Abuse

If you suspect an older person may be experiencing abuse, it’s important that you act on your concerns by:

  • Talking to the older person in a safe environment 
  • Sensitively ask them about their wellbeing and raise your concerns
  • Assess their immediate safety
  • If you believe they are in danger, call 000
  • If non-urgent, reassure them that help is available
  • Assist them to make contact with a relevant support service
  • If they don’t wish to seek help, let them know that you’re ready to assist when they are
  • Be sure to check back in regularly on the person’s condition

We can all play a role in responding to elder abuse, but there are a range of people in our community who hold roles where they are especially able to recognise and respond, such as:

  • Doctors and health professionals
  • Aged care workers
  • Community welfare agencies
  • Financial and legal services
  • Housing services
  • Community groups
  • Churches and faith communities


Helpful Resources and Further Information


Videos and Webinars