Identifying Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is often hidden and can be hard to identify. If you suspect someone is being abused, help is available.

Get help

What is elder abuse?

As many as one in ten older people in New Zealand will experience some kind of elder abuse.

Any act that causes harm to an older person is elder abuse, including:

  • psychological abuse – for example, threats, humiliation or harassment that causes feelings of distress, shame or powerlessness
  • financial abuse – for example, illegal use of someone’s money or assets, or being pressured to change a will or sign documents
  • physical abuse – including any physical harm or injury
  • sexual abuse – including any non-consensual sexual activity
  • neglect of any kind, whether intentional or unintentional
  • not providing food, housing or medical care.

At its most extreme, abuse may be criminal – but it can also be more subtle. In most cases, people experience more than one type of abuse.


Recognising elder abuse

It can be difficult to identify elder abuse – people may not understand that what’s happening is wrong, or they may be afraid to speak out.

Abusers are often someone the older person depends on for support or care. They often live with the person, or are someone close to them – a family member, friend or a neighbour.

Watch out for:

  • fear of a particular person or people
  • worry, anxiety or irritability
  • depression or withdrawal
  • disturbed sleep
  • changes in eating habits
  • suicidal thoughts
  • shaking, trembling, or crying
  • rigid posture
  • expressing helplessness, hopelessness or sadness
  • reluctance to talk openly or letting others speak for them
  • avoiding contact with a specific person (or refusing to make eye contact or speak to them).

Older people can be more at risk of abuse if they:

  • are in financial hardship
  • have poor health
  • suffer from mental illness or dementia
  • depend on others to help them take care of themselves or get around
  • don’t have friends or family close by, or have conflict or dysfunction in their family relationships
  • have older or adult children or dependents with a disability or health issue
  • had limited education.

Reaching out

If you’re concerned that someone is experiencing elder abuse, consider talking to them. The sooner you reach out, the sooner they can get help.

You could ask:

  • Are you ok?
  • Do you want to talk?
  • Is someone hurting you?
  • Is there anything I can do?

It’s important to listen to what the older person has to say and not jump to conclusions. Try to give support, rather than giving advice or telling them what to do.

Remember that abuse can create feelings of shame. The older person may need to work through things in their own time.

If you think someone is in danger call 111 and ask for the Police.

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