Although estimates on the prevalence of elder abuse vary, it is thought to be at least as common as child abuse. Victims are typically older than 75 years and either physically or mentally disabled. The Senate Special Committee on Aging estimates that as many as five million older Americans may be victims of abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation every year.

Elder abuse in long-term care facilities has long been recognized, yet it continues to gain attention in all likelihood because one in every eight, or 13.3 percent, of the population is currently an older American.

What is Mistreatment?

The National Center on Elder Abuse, established in 1988, defines the major categories of elder mistreatment in these ways:

  • Physical Abuse - Inflicting, or threatening to inflict, physical pain or injury on a vulnerable elder, or depriving them of a basic need.
  • Emotional Abuse - Inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
  • Sexual Abuse - Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind, coercing an elder to witness sexual behaviors.
  • Exploitation - Illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a vulnerable elder.
  • Neglect - Refusal or failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection to a vulnerable elder.
  • Abandonment - The desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.

If you report abuse, either as a witness or victim, you do not need to prove that abuse is occurring; it is up to the professionals to investigate the suspicions.

How to Report Mistreatment

If you or someone you know is in immediate, life-threatening danger, call the police or 9-1-1 immediately. If you have been a victim or a witness of abuse, you are not alone. Relay your concerns to the local Adult Protective Services, Long-term Care Ombudsman, or police. If you have been a past victim, please tell your doctor, a friend, or someone in your family you trust, or call the Adult Protective Services program in your area.

The Eldercare Locator, which is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, can be reached at 1-800-677-1116. When making the call, be ready to give the name, address, and contact information of the person you suspect is abused or neglected, and details about why you are concerned. Operators will refer you to a local agency that can help.

You may be asked a series of questions to help the agency gain more insight into the nature of the situation. You will be asked for your own name, address, and telephone number, but most states will take the report even if you do not identify yourself. The professionals receiving your report are prohibited from releasing your information; they may not disclose your identity to the alleged abuser or victim.


Congress passed the Older Americans Act (OAA) in 1965 in response to concerns about a lack of community social services for older persons. Today, the OAA is the major vehicle for organization and delivery of social and nutrition services for older Americans and their caregivers. It authorizes an array of service programs through a national network of 56 state agencies on aging, 629 area agencies on aging, nearly 20,000 service providers, 244 tribal organizations, and two Native Hawaiian organizations representing 400 tribes. The National Center on Elder Abuse is under the auspices of OAA and AoA, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The OAA also includes community service employment for low-income older Americans, vulnerable elder rights protection activities, and training, research, and demonstration activities in the field of aging.

Ongoing research on issues of aging is necessary in order to mold policy and laws that protect the elderly.


Using data from the federal On-Line Survey and Certification System (OSCAR) from 2004 to 2009, a 2010 study from the University of California, San Francisco noted that state agencies reviewed 15,658 nursing homes with 1.66 million beds. The study finds that in 2009, 24.7 percent of the nation's nursing facilities received deficiencies for poor quality of care, causing direct harm or injury to residents, and nearly half (45 percent) of nursing homes failed to ensure a safe environment for their residents, representing a three percent increase since 2004. Another study surveyed 577 nurses and aides from 32 nursing homes and revealed that 70 percent had witnessed a fellow nurse or aide yelling at a patient in anger and 33 percent had done this themselves. A survey of 80 non-demented nursing home residents revealed that 44 percent felt they had been physically abused and nearly half (48 percent) felt they had been handled roughly by nursing home staff.

Where Are You?

In 2011, the population of Americans 65 or older numbered 41.4 million out of a total population of 312.8 million. Yet, the 65 and over population is projected to increase to 79.7 million in 2040 (27 years from now). It is important to remember that individuals who reach age 65 have an average life expectancy of an additional 19.2 years (20.4 years for females and 17. 8 years for males).

Currently, older women outnumber older men at 23.4 million older women to 17.9 million older men. Older men are much more likely to be married than older women - 72 percent of men versus 45 percent of women. In 2011, almost 3.6 million elderly persons (8.7 percent) were living below the poverty level. The 85 and over population, those most likely to experience abuse, is estimated to increase from the 5.7 million counted in 2011 to 14.1 million in 2040.

Clearly, it is essential that elders, along with their families, friends, caregivers, and compassionate health care workers, are able to recognize risk factors, and understand the definition of and know how to report elder abuse.

Source: Vognar, L, Buhr, G. Elder Abuse in Long Term Care: A Growing Problem. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. 2011.