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Elder Abuse: Definitions

NOTE: The definitions presented on this page are preliminary and for descriptive purposes only. CDC and our partners are working to develop a document containing standardized definitions and recommended data elements for use in elder abuse surveillance.

Elder abuse is any abuse and neglect of persons age 60 and older by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust.

Forms of elder abuse include:

  • Physical Abuse occurs when an elder is injured (e.g., scratched, bitten, slapped, pushed, hit, burned, etc.), assaulted or threatened with a weapon (e.g., knife, gun, or other object), or inappropriately restrained.
  • Sexual Abuse or Abusive Sexual Contact is any sexual contact against an elder’s will. This includes acts in which the elder is unable to understand the act or is unable to communicate. Abusive sexual contact is defined as intentional touching (either directly or through the clothing), of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, mouth, inner thigh, or buttocks.
  • Psychological or Emotional Abuse occurs when an elder experiences trauma after exposure to threatening acts or coercive tactics. Examples include humiliation or embarrassment; controlling behavior (e.g., prohibiting or limiting access to transportation, telephone, money or other resources); social isolation; disregarding or trivializing needs; or damaging or destroying property.
  • Neglect is the failure or refusal of a caregiver or other responsible person to provide for an elder’s basic physical, emotional, or social needs, or failure to protect them from harm. Examples include not providing adequate nutrition, hygiene, clothing, shelter, or access to necessary health care; or failure to prevent exposure to unsafe activities and environments.
  • Abandonment is the willful desertion of an elderly person by caregiver or other responsible person.
  • Financial Abuse or Exploitation is the unauthorized or improper use of the resources of an elder for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain. Examples include forgery, misuse or theft of money or possessions; use of coercion or deception to surrender finances or property; or improper use of guardianship or power of attorney.

Why is a Consistent Definition Important?

A consistent definition is needed to monitor the incidence of elder abuse and examine trends over time. Consistency helps to determine the magnitude of elder abuse and enables comparisons of the problem across locations. This ultimately informs prevention and intervention efforts.

Unfortunately, elder abuse has been 1) poorly or imprecisely defined, 2) defined specifically to reflect the unique statutes or conditions present in specific locations (e.g., states, counties, or cities), or 3) defined specifically for research purposes. As a result, a set of universally accepted definitions does not exist.

Related Topic: Self Neglect

Elder abuse and self-neglect are two separate yet related sets of behaviors and interactions. The main difference is with self-neglect, the harm or the potential for harm is created by one’s own behaviors rather than resulting from others’ actions. Both elder abuse and self-neglect are important, because both compromise health, decrease quality of life, and threaten longevity.

Self-neglect occurs when vulnerable elders fail or refuse to address their own basic physical, emotional, or social needs. Examples include self-care tasks such as nourishment, clothing, hygiene, and shelter; proper/appropriate use of medications; and managing or administering one’s finances.

Additional Reference Material

Choi NG and Mayer J. 2000. Elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation: risk factors and prevention strategies. Journal of Gerontological Social Work;33:5–25.

Ingram E. 2003. Expert panel recommendations on elder mistreatment using a public health framework. J Elder Abuse and Neglect;15(2):45–65.

National Research Council. 2003. Elder mistreatment: abuse, neglect, and exploitation in an aging America. In: Bonnie RJ and Wallace RB, editors. Panel to review risk and prevalence of elder abuse and neglect. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

Tatara T. 1990. Elder abuse in the United States: an issue paper. Washington DC: National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse.

Teaster P, Dugar T, Mendiondo M, Abner E, Cecil K, Otto J. 2006. The survey of state adult protective services: abuse of adults 60 years of age and older. National Center on Elder Abuse.

Thomas C. 2002. First national study of elder abuse and neglect: contrast with results from other studies. J Elder Abuse and Neglect;12:114..


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