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What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.

Elder abuse happens and it's important to know the signs.

The different types of elder abuse

Elder abuse can take many forms including:

  • Physical abuse

    Physical abuse is an act that causes physical pain or injury to an older person. It can include, but is not limited to, actions such as hitting, pushing or kicking.

    Inappropriate use of drugs or physical restraints is also an example of physical abuse.

  • Sexual abuse

    Sexual abuse is any sexual behaviour without a person's consent. It includes sexual interactions and non-contact acts of a sexual nature.

  • Psychological abuse

    Psychological or emotional abuse is an act that causes emotional pain or injury to an older person. It can include insulting or threatening a person, acts of humiliation or disrespect and controlling behaviours including confining or isolating a person.

  • Financial abuse

    Financial abuse is the misuse or theft or an older person's money or assets. It can include but is not limited to, behaviours such as using finances without permission, using a legal document such as an enduring power of attorney for purposes outside what it was originally signed for, withholding care for financial gain, or selling or transferring property against a person's wishes.

  • Neglect

    Neglect is the failure of a carer to meet a person's basic needs such as food, housing and essential medical care.

    Examples include inadequate food and drink, isolation, lack of cultural contact, inadequate supervision, inadequate or appropriate use of medication, unmet physical needs such as decaying teeth and poor hygiene or inadequate skin care.

Know the signs

If you suspect an older person is being subjected to elder abuse, pay close attention and see if you can identify any of the signs or behaviour changes* below.

If you suspect someone you know is experiencing elder abuse, don't wait for proof, call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 651 192 for free confidential advice and referral.

Signs of possible elder abuse

Changes in general behaviour

  • Being afraid of one or many persons
  • Irritable or easily upset
  • Worried or anxious for no obvious reason
  • Depressed, apathetic or withdrawn
  • Change in sleep patterns or eating habits
  • Rigid posture and avoiding contact
  • Avoiding eye contact or eyes darting continuously
  • Contradictory statements unrelated to mental confusion
  • Reluctance to talk openly.

Physical abuse

  • A history of physical abuse, accidents or injuries
  • Injuries such as skin trauma, including bruising, skin tears, burns, welts, bed sores, ulcers or unexplained fractures and sprains
  • Signs of restraint (e.g. at the wrists or waist)
  • Unexplained behaviour changes suggesting under-medication or over-medication
  • Unusual patterns of injury.

Sexual abuse

  • Bruising around the breasts or genital area
  • Unexplained genital or urinary tract infections
  • Damaged or bloody underclothing
  • Bruising on the inner thighs
  • Difficulty in walking or sitting.

Psychological abuse

  • A history of psychological abuse
  • Reluctance to talk, fear, anxiety, nervousness, apathy, resignation, withdrawal, avoidance of eye contact
  • Rocking or huddling up
  • Loss of interest in self or environment
  • Insomnia/sleep deprivation
  • Unusual behaviour or confusion not associated with illness.

Financial abuse

  • History of fraudulent behaviour or stealing perpetrated against the older person
  • Lack of money to purchase medication or food
  • Lack of money to purchase personal items
  • Defaulting on payment of rent
  • Stripping of assets from the family home or unauthorised use of assets.


  • A history of neglect
  • Decline in hygiene, bad odour, urine rash
  • Malnourishment, weight loss, dehydration (dark urine, dry tongue, lax skin)
  • Bed sores (sacrum, hips, heels, elbows)
  • Being over-sedated or under-sedated
  • Broken or missing aids such as spectacles, dentures, hearing aids or walking frame.


*Source: page 75, Abuse and Violence: Working with our patients in general practice (4th edition), Melbourne, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, 2014.

Elder Abuse Helpline

Free anonymous and confidential assistance between 9am–5pm, Monday to Friday

This helpline is funded by the Queensland Government and operated by UnitingCare Community.

An experienced and trained operator will help you identify the signs of abuse and provide referrals to the relevant support services.

In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

Other support services