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What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is violence, neglect, or mistreatment of older adults at the hands of their spouses, children, other family members, caregivers, service providers, or other individuals in situations of power or trust. 

Types of elder abuse

The Public Health Agency of Canada identifies several types of elder abuse:

  • financial
  • physical
  • emotional or psychological
  • neglect
  • sexual

Financial abuse is the most common, according to government data. It includes:

  • Misusing or stealing assets, property or money;
  • Cashing a senior’s cheques without authorization;
  • Forging an elderly person's signature;
  • Coercing or tricking seniors to make or change a will, or to sign legal documents;
  • Abusing a power of attorney; and
  • Sharing an older person's home without paying a fair share of the expenses when requested.

Physical abuse includes striking, shoving, shaking, and burning, but can also refer to physically or chemically restraining a senior, force-feeding or over-medicating them in a way that could cause physical harm.

Psychological and emotional abuse diminishes the identity and self-worth of a senior through insults, threats, intimidation, bullying, humiliation, harassment, isolation, and deprivation of rights.

Neglect means depriving or failing to provide basic needs to a senior, such as food, water, shelter, and medication or medical attention.

Sexual abuse is any type of non-consensual sexual contact, including rape.

The public health agency also identifies self-abuse as a form of elder abuse, although some debate exists about whether to include this in a standard definition since it doesn’t involve an outside perpetrator. Rather, this is a senior who refuses or fails to care for themselves.

Who commits elder abuse?

Overall, seniors are at the greatest risk from friends or acquaintances, according to data from Statistics Canada. Family members are the second-most common perpetrators.

Family members, specifically grown children of seniors, are the most common perpetrators of physical abuse. Men tend to be the most common offenders, but not by a wide margin. In most cases, the abuser is dependent on the senior for money, food or shelter.

As with many forms of abuse and violence, the victims are more often female. However, some government data shows more male seniors report being victims of financial and emotional abuse.

Recognizing elder abuse

Elder abuse can be difficult to identify, but there are some common signs:

  • Unexplained physical injuries;
  • Fear, anxiety or depression, particularly in relation to a certain family member or care provider;
  • Confusion about new legal documents like a will, power of attorney, or mortgage;
  • Signs of neglect: unkempt appearance, bedsores, poor nutrition or hygiene, sudden changes in cash flow, broken or missing glasses, dentures or mobility devices; and
  • Reluctance to discuss those indicators.

If you believe someone you know is being abused, try to speak to them. If they confirm your suspicions, try to inform them of the many people, resources, and agencies who can help them. Seniors are often reluctant to report abuse out of a sense of family loyalty.

If you suspect the person is in more immediate danger, contact the police and relay your concerns.

Read more:

Elder abuse: it’s time to face the reality 

Elder abuse in Canada: a gender-based analysis