Recognizing signs of elder abuse to take action

Abuse can take many forms, and during times like these, it may be more difficult to identify. Intimidation, negligence, emotional blackmail, theft, push and shove, threats, and aggression are just a few examples of abuse and neglect. In Canada, it is estimated that between 4% and 10% of people over 65 live in situations of abuse and neglect, and that number has likely increased during the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, crises such as the current global pandemic increase the risk of domestic and family violence as perpetrators seek to maintain a sense of power and control. Additionally, distancing measures and fewer in-person social interactions can make it harder to recognize signs of abuse.

Understanding the risk factors for elder abuse can help family members and caregivers identify those who are more vulnerable. Three important risk factors include:  

  • elder being abused (i.e. history of abuse or trauma, mental illness, low income),

  • person inflicting the abuse (i.e., stressed or overburdened caregiver, history of mental illness)

  • relationship between elder and person inflicting abuse (family relationships are difficult, low social support)

Knowing the signs of elder abuse is critical to identifying it and acting. Key signs of elder abuse may include but are not limited to: recent deterioration of health status, mental illness, alcohol or drug use, dehydration or malnutrition, poor hygiene, bruises to the face, arms, or torso.   

If you notice any of the signs associated with elder abuse, act and speak to someone. You may want to contact family or friends, members of your local faith community, health-care providers, social services, the police, or members of the legal profession. Help is available, so don’t delay in moving forward to stop abuse.

Here are a few steps to help you report elder abuse.

  • If you think someone you know is being abused, is at risk of serious harm, and the situation is an emergency, call 911.

  • If you suspect someone you know is being abused, but they are not in any immediate risk, consider speaking with them to get more information. If your discussion verifies your concerns, then you can inform them of their rights. If they are not ready to deal with the abuse, offer your personal support until they are ready to take action.

  • If the older person is confused and doesn't seem to be able to understand their situation, you may have to contact the local Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee or the local police. They will investigate further.

Continue reading about elder abuse using our featured resources below and learn more about associated risk factors, how to identify abuse, and what to do if you suspect someone is being abused.

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DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.