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National Center on Elder Abuse

Home / Elder Abuse / Defining Abuse

What is elder abuse?

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elder abuse “is an intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult. An older adult is someone age 60 or older. The abuse often occurs at the hands of a caregiver or a person the elder trusts.”
The Elder Justice Act defines elder abuse as the knowing infliction of physical or psychological harm or the knowing deprivation of goods or services that are necessary to meet essential needs or to avoid physical or psychological harm. “Elder” means an individual age 60 or older.
All 50 states have some form of elder abuse prevention laws. Laws and definitions of elder abuse vary by state. State statutes are accessible through this link.  

What are the types of elder abuse?

Elder mistreatment typically takes one of the following forms: physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and neglect. Older adults may also experience maltreatment in the form of self-neglect and/or abandonment. The types of abuse are defined below.
Note: Definitions of maltreatment align with federal statutes, when applicable. Where statutory authority is unavailable, definitions derive from research in the field of elder abuse.

An icon of a band-aid representing physical abuse
An icon of a heart with a cross out symbol over it to represent sexual abuse
An icon of a brain to represent emotional abuse
An illustration of two people facing opposite directions to represent neglect
A dollar symbol used to represent financial abuse
An icon of a wilting flower to represent self-neglect
A rain cloud icon depicting abandonment

What are some characteristics associated with elder abuse?

Elder abuse can happen to anyone by anyone and occur in multiple settings, including the community and in long-term care facilities. A combination of medical, psychological, functional, social, and economic factors may be associated with the occurrence of elder maltreatment. These risk factors may potentially expose older adults to a heightened risk of abuse. Examples include but are not limited to: 


  • Chronic medical and mental health conditions  
  • Cognitive impairment  
  • Physical, financial, and emotional dependence  
  • History of poor family relationship between older adult and caregiver  
  • Caregiver burden 
  • Social isolation 
  • Lack of access to support and resources 

What are some common characteristics among those who abuse older adults?

Elder abuse is frequently caused by those known to and trusted by older adults, such as family members, caregivers, friends, loved ones, service providers, and peers. Maltreatment can also be caused by strangers. Abusers can be anyone, of any age, race, or socioeconomic status.  

How common is elder abuse?

Research indicates that one in ten older people living in the community experience some form of abuse in the United States. Recent studies have suggested that elder abuse increased in severity during the pandemic. One study found that abuse within the COVID-19 period doubled to one in five. Individuals may experience multiple forms of abuse at the same time or over time. This is called poly-victimization. Elder abuse impacts communities on many levels, including personal relationships, community engagement, and public health, safety, and economic domains.  

Last Modified: 12/26/2023