What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is any deliberate or unintentional action, or lack of action, carried out by a person in a trusted relationship, which causes distress, harm, or serious risk of harm to an older person, or loss or damage to property or assets.

Elder abuse is more likely to be carried out by a relative such as a son or daughter, spouse or domestic partner, grandchildren, friend or neighbour, or paid or unpaid carer.

It is common for elder abuse to be experienced at home, in places visited regularly, or where services or care are accessed. However it is not uncommon for elder abuse to remain hidden and continue unsuspected.

To help put a stop to elder abuse, it is important for the broader community to learn about:

Types and signs of elder abuse

There are different types of elder abuse and often more than one of the following may be experienced by older people:


Non-accidental actions that result in physical pain or injury to an older person.


Psychological or emotional abuse is any language or actions designed to intimidate another person and cause fear of violence, isolation, deprivation, or feelings of powerlessness. These actions are intended to undermine a person’s identity, dignity or self-worth.


Financial abuse involves the illegal or improper use and/or mismanagement of a person’s money, property or resources.


The forced isolation of older people, with the sometimes additional effect of hiding abuse from outside scrutiny and restricting or stopping social contact with others, including attendance at social activities.


Involves the failure of a carer or responsible person to provide life necessities, such as adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical or dental care, as well as the refusal to permit others to provide appropriate care (also known as abandonment).


Non-consensual sexual contact, language or exploitative behaviour.


Substance (or chemical) abuse is any misuse of drugs, alcohol, medications and prescriptions, including the withholding of medication and over-medication.

Some types may be subtle and difficult to recognise. In more extreme cases, situations may require police involvement where a crime may have been committed.

Elder abuse may affect a person in many ways and may cause:

  • depression, anxiety, insomnia
  • loss of appetite, dignity, interest in life or personal hygiene
  • feelings of insecurity, guilt, worthlessness, and low self-esteem
  • perceptions of fear, powerlessness and helplessness to change the situation
  • fear that confrontation could result in the loss of the relationship, loss of their home and entry to residential aged care, or harm to pets
  • homelessness, or significant loss of property, assets and finances
  • unwanted entry to residential aged care
  • premature death through neglect.

More information about elder abuse, signs and indicators (PDF 213KB).

Elder abuse - who is at risk?

Elder abuse affects older people from different backgrounds including education, occupational, financial, and cultural. Known risk factors include:

  • increased dependency for daily activities
  • dependency on others for your finances
  • isolation
  • shared living arrangements
  • frailty in older age
  • long term or sudden illness
  • problems with confusion or memory
  • dementia or illnesses that affect memory
  • mental health problems
  • history of domestic violence
  • drug and alcohol dependency
  • addictive behaviours.

More information on elder abuse risk factors (PDF 121KB) and ways to prevent elder abuse can help you or someone you know stop abuse occurring or escalating during of times of increased vulnerability and dependency.

Elder abuse - when should you seek help?

Everyone has a right to be safe and to be treated with dignity and respect. Learning about the different types and signs of elder abuse, and known risk factors will help you to recognise concerns and may help you take action.

Feeling pressured to do things you don’t want to do, forced or tricked into signing papers, feeling restricted or unsafe, being called names, threatened or pushed are some signs.

Even if you don’t know where to start, talking to someone trusted is the most important step toward gaining control of your circumstances.

More help is available if you have concerns.

If you think that you or someone you know may be experiencing elder abuse, don’t wait - call the Adult Safeguarding Unit on 1800 372 310.

Where can I report abuse?

In South Australia, elder abuse can be reported to the Adult Safeguarding Unit on 1800 372 310. Trained staff will provide free confidential, information, advice and support.

Reporting suspected or witnessed sexual and physical abuse of people living in residential aged care facilities is compulsory and must be reported to the police within 24 hours of the incident, or when it is first suspected. Assault includes unlawful sexual contact and unreasonable use of force. Reports of this kind can also be made to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

If you are concerned about the care being provided by an NDIS service or support, please contact NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

If you are worried about an older person and anxious about raising the matter with them directly, discuss your concerns with a trusted individual, such as a doctor or service provider.

When should you contact police?

If you are concerned about the risk of homicide or suicide, or if the person is at significant risk, this is an emergency and it is recommended that you call police on 000.

If the situation is not an emergency call police on 131 444. This may include making general police related inquiries or reporting a crime that has already happened for example physical or sexual assault, theft, or damage to property. The police may document your concerns about events and refer to this later.

The following are useful tips:

  • if you do hear or see the abuse, keep a journal about the events
  • mark the day and time of events, and what you heard or witnessed
  • if you are aware that money or personal belongings are being stolen, explore whether you can support the person to develop a list of items, or to check bank statements.

If you decide to contact the police, consider the following:

  • the older person may not be able to or may fear speaking openly with police
  • they may feel intimidated or protective, and deny or downplay the abuse to the police
  • police involvement could deter abuse from continuing, or escalate the abuse after the police leave
  • it's common for abusers to lie or cover up the situation with police to get them to go away, especially if the older person has memory problems, or difficulties with language or communication.

Elder abuse – how can I prevent it?

Not all older people will experience elder abuse. Even if you are not at risk, learning about simple and effective safeguards will help you or someone you know maintain control and manage decisions about property, finances, health care, and accommodation independently.

Know Your Rights - A Guide to the Rights of Older South Australians (PDF 1MB) is a valuable resource for the community that aims to increase awareness of older people’s rights, the laws that protect these, and where to go for more information.


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