Elder abuse

Elder abuse is any behaviour causing harm or distress to an older person by someone they should be able to trust.

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Key points

  1. Elder abuse can be physical, emotional (including verbal), financial, sexual, institutional or involve neglect.
  2. It can be one-off, but more often it happens repeatedly over a period of time.
  3. Some people are at greater risk of abuse, due to issues within a family, carers struggling with their role or, in hospital or residential settings, staff training and support issues.
  4. While it's good to not jump to conclusions, signs of abuse may include unexplained behaviours and injuries, confusion and financial issues.
  5. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent elder abuse or get help if you or someone you know is experiencing elder abuse.

Who does elder abuse affect?

Elder abuse is a global problem. International studies suggest that 3–10% of older people experience abuse or neglect each year.

Elder abuse can:

  • happen to men and women of every religious, cultural, ethnic and income group
  • occur in any setting, rural or urban
  • affect older people living on their own or living with others
  • occur in private homes or within a residential care or health care setting
  • affect people who are frail and vulnerable, who depend on others to meet their needs.

Sadly, much abuse goes unreported or is only reported after it has escalated to have caused significant harm to an older person.  

Who is at risk of elder abuse?

Some older people are more at risk of being abused. This may be due to issues within a family, carers struggling with their role or, in hospital or residential settings, staff training and support issues.

Read more about the risk factors for elder abuse.

What are the types of elder abuse?

There are 5 commonly used categories of elder abuse.

  • Physical abuse
    • Inflicting physical pain or causing injury, including inappropriate use of force or restraint and use of medications that sedate or cause harm.
  • Psychological/emotional abuse
    • Inflicting mental pain, anguish or distress on an older person. This includes the ways in which an older person is spoken to.
  • Financial/material abuse
    • Illegal or improper use of funds or other resources, and/or exploitation.
  • Neglect
    • Failure to meet the physical and emotional needs of an older person.
  • Sexual abuse
    • Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Institutional abuse
    • Any policy or practice of an organisation that is harmful to an older person.

Read more about the types of elder abuse.

What are the signs of elder abuse?

The following signs may raise suspicion of potential elder abuse, but it's important to avoid jumping to conclusions – the whole situation needs to be taken into account:

  • unexplained behaviour, sleeping or eating habits
  • confusion, withdrawal and/or edginess
  • unexplained injuries
  • drowsiness (due to over-medication)
  • fear of a particular person or being anxious in familiar situations
  • recoiling from touch
  • unusual withdrawals from bank accounts or decisions around property or other assets
  • unpaid bills and/or not enough money for necessities.

Read more about the signs of abuse relating to different types of elder abuse.

How can elder abuse be prevented?

Older people have the right to make their own choices and decisions even if you don’t agree with them. Where older people’s choices are being undermined or over-ridden by others, it is important to question whether their human rights are being upheld.

To help prevent elder abuse, older people should be:

  • loved and cherished
  • spoken and listened to respectfully
  • included in social activities
  • phoned or visited regularly
  • supported to spend their money how they wish
  • encouraged and supported to make their own decisions
  • enabled to set their own pace.

Where to find help for elder abuse

If you are worried about how you or another older person are being treated, do one of the following:

  • Talk to someone you trust – a friend or someone in your family/whānau.
  • Talk to someone you see regularly – a doctor, nurse, member of your church or spiritual leader.
  • Talk confidentially with a worker from an agency with experience in dealing sensitively with elder abuse, like Age Concern.
  • Phone 0800 652 105 to ask Age Concern about your nearest elder abuse service.
  • Visit Age Concern elder abuse services to find your nearest service.
  • Call the national elder abuse 24-hour free phone line on 0800 32 668 65 or text 5032 or email support@elderabuse.nz.
  • If you or an older person are in immediate danger, call the Police on 111.

Learn more

Elder abuse Age Concern, NZ 
Elder abuse MSD Super Seniors, NZ
Elder abuse World Health Organization
Financial abuse NZ Government 


  1. Family violence intervention guidelines – elder abuse and neglect Ministry of Health, NZ, 2007
  2. Elder abuse Age Concern, NZ 
  3. Elder abuse Agewell, NZ

Reviewed by

Hanny Naus is Age Concern New Zealand’s Professional Educator for Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention. She connects with workers around the country who provide assessment and intervention services to enhance the safety and wellbeing of older people/kaumātua. In previous work roles, Hanny’s focus included social work/counselling practice in community and health care settings with older people, families, and people with disabilities; as well as tertiary social work/counselling student education.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Hanny Naus, Professional Educator for Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention, Age Concern NZ Last reviewed: 11 Jun 2020