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JAMA Patient Page
August 3, 2011

Elder Abuse

JAMA. 2011;306(5):568. doi:10.1001/jama.306.5.568

Elder abuse refers to the mistreatment of an older adult that threatens his or her health or safety. Although the abuse may be caused by a person who is in a position of trust, such as a family member or paid assistant, it also may be self-inflicted. In cases of self-neglect, an older person is unable to provide for his or her own needs (including hygiene, food, and housing) because of emotional, cognitive, or physical impairments. Elder abuse may result in depression, broken bones, sores, bruises, and death. Because persons experiencing elder abuse are often unable to seek help, friends, family, neighbors, or physicians may be in the best position to recognize and respond to an abusive situation. This Patient Page is based on one originally published in the August 5, 2009, issue of JAMA. The August 3, 2010, issue of JAMA is a theme issue on violence and human rights that includes an article discussing elder abuse and self-neglect.

Types of elder abuse

  • Physical abuse, such as infliction of pain or injury

  • Sexual abuse, including any nonconsensual sexual contact

  • Emotional abuse, such as yelling or verbal threats

  • Caregiver neglect—refusal or failure to fulfill caregiver obligations to meet basic needs, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care

  • Self-neglect

  • Financial exploitation, such as unauthorized or improper use of a person's funds

Risk factors for elder abuse

An older person who:

  • Has memory problems (such as dementia)

  • Has physical disabilities

  • Has depression, loneliness, or lack of social support

  • Abuses alcohol or other substances

  • Is verbally or physically combative with the caregiver

A caregiver who:

  • Feels overwhelmed or resentful

  • Has a history of substance abuse or history of abusing others

  • Is dependent on the older person for housing, finances, or other needs

Recognition and actions to take if you suspect elder abuse

  • Intervene if you suspect elder abuse—in the United States, call the elder care help line at 1-800-677-1116.

  • Listen to elders and their caregivers. Be alert for warning signs such as withdrawal from usual activities, unexplained bruises, or caregiver anger.

  • If you are worried that you might become an abusive caregiver, get help from professionals and local support groups. Talk to your doctor. Accept help from family and friends.

  • Seek counseling or other support if you are feeling stressed or depressed.

For more information

Inform yourself

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA 's Web site at www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.

Sources: National Center on Elder Abuse, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.