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What is Elder Abuse?

The term “elder mistreatment” encompasses abuse and neglect and is defined as:

“The intentional actions that cause harm or create risk of harm (whether harm is intended) to a vulnerable elder by a caregiver or other person who stands in a trust relationship to the elder. This includes failure by a caregiver to satisfy the elder’s basic needs or to protect the elder from harm.”[1]

Elder abuse in nursing homes can take on many forms and can leave victims physically, mentally or even financially injured. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, the following types of abuse are commonly accepted as the major categories of elder mistreatment:

Physical Abuse

Occurs when a person inflicts or threatens to inflict physical pain or injury on a vulnerable older adult, or deprives them of a basic need. Examples of physical abuse include assaults such as shoving or hitting, or the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints and confinements.

Emotional Abuse

Takes place when a person intentionally inflicts mental pain, anguish or distress on an older adult through verbal or nonverbal acts. Emotional abuse can include acts such as ignoring the resident, isolating the resident from friends and activities, and terrorizing the resident.

Sexual Abuse

Occurs when there is non-consensual sexual contact of any kind, or when an older adult is forced to witness sexual behaviors. Forcing an older adult to undress also can be considered sexual abuse.

What Is Elder Abuse?


Refusal or failure by caregivers or those responsible to provide basic needs, such as food or drink, shelter, health care or protection to an older adult who is vulnerable.

Financial Exploitation

Illegally taking, misusing or concealing the funds, property or assets of a vulnerable older adult. Forms of financial exploitation can include misusing a person’s money (checks, credit cards, bank accounts); stealing cash, income checks or personal items; forging the person’s signature; or stealing the person’s identity.


Why Does Nursing Home Abuse Occur?

There is no single reason why nursing home abuse occurs, but there are many factors that contribute to the problem and result in unethical care for aging adults.


Putting Profits Before People large majority of nursing homes are for-profit organizations and corporate chains. As more and more nursing homes have been taken over by corporations, the focus has turned sharply to making a profit at the expense of providing quality care to residents.

Nursing Home StaffingThe pressure to make a profit and cut costs has led to lower staffing levels. According to the American Association for Justice, for-profit nursing homes have an average of 32 percent fewer nurses and nearly 50 percent higher deficiencies than nonprofit facilities.[2] The result has been a rise in neglect and abuse of older adults.

Negligent Hiring Practices 

HandcuffsIn some cases, the abuse can be traced to the negligent hiring practices of nursing homes. One state investigation found more than 3,500 people with criminal records, including rape, robbery and murder were allowed to work with older adults for two decades. Despite conducting background checks and finding criminal records, nursing homes often ignored the results.[3]

Growing Older Adult Population

The 2010 U.S. Census recorded the greatest number and proportion of people age 65 and older in all of decennial census history, accounting for 40.3 million or 13 percent of the U.S. population.[4] As this trend continues, a growing number of people will be living in more than 16,000 nursing homes across the country, leaving them at risk of being mistreated in facilities that are negligent or otherwise not up to standard.

Even more, by the year 2030, about 20 percent of the U.S. population will be age 65 or older.[5] As our aging population grows, so too does our responsibility to provide them with quality long-term care.

Growing Elderly Population


[1] Bonnie, R. and Wallace, R. “Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation in an Aging America.” Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press. 2002.

[2] American Association for Justice. “Standing Up For Seniors: How the Civil Justice System Protects Elderly Americans.” October 2010. Available online. Accessed January 13, 2015.

[3] Heinlein, G. “Felons found working in elder care.” The Detroit News. June 1, 2005; Kestin, S., Franceschina, P., Mains, J. “Convicted felons could be working in your mother or father’s nursing homes.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. Sept. 27, 2009.

[4] National Center on Elder Abuse. “America’s Growing Elderly Population.” Available online. Accessed January 13, 2015.

[5] “’Silver Tsunami’ And Other Terms that Can Irk the Over-65 Set.” National Public Radio. May 19, 2014. Available online. Accessed, Jan. 7, 2015.