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OJP Fact SheetOJP Fact Sheet

Elder Abuse and Mistreatment

Vulnerable older adults face high risks of financial, physical, and psychological abuse. Too often, these abuses go undetected or are disregarded after they are discovered. Frequently family members or caregivers are the perpetators; thus the abuse can mistakenly be seen as a private, family matter.

Elder abuse includes intentional actions by a caregiver or other trusted individual that causes harm to an older adult. Elder abuse can also include the failure of a caregiver or other responsible party to provide for the basic needs of an elder. The comprehensive definition of elder abuse includes financial exploitation of older people, as well as physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse.


Elder abuse and neglect is an understudied problem in the United States. Historically viewed as a social rather than a criminal problem, most states did not establish adult protective services units to address elder abuse until the mid-1980s. The extent of elder abuse is unknown, in part because of the lack of definitive and comprehensive research in the area.

Elder abuse is frequently perpetrated by a spouse, relative, or acquaintance, which increases the likelihood that crimes are being underreported. Low household income, unemployment or retirement, poor health, prior traumatic events, and low levels of social support all can indicate a higher likelihood that older people may experience mistreatment.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the medical and criminal justice communities lack comprehensive forensic guidelines for identifying elder abuse and mistreatment. Financial exploitation of older adults has also not been thoroughly studied because of problems with detection, conflicting definitions of the crime, and underreporting.

What OJP Is Doing

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has been working in cooperation with its grantees and partners to help close the gap in the current research and scholarship on elder abuse and mistreatment. One of NIJ’s primary objectives is to identify emerging promising practices and evaluate their effectiveness in improving prevention, detection, and intervention efforts. NIJ’s Elder Mistreatment Research Program has produced significant research into determining the extent of elder abuse, identifying and evaluating forensic markers of elder physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and developing tools for use by practitioners in the field. The NIJ Journal also has included an overview of studies on the prevalence and detection of elder abuse, which will help criminal justice professionals to identify the warning signs of violence against older people, including distinguishing between normal bruising patterns and those that result from abuse.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is involved in a variety of efforts to help combat elder abuse and assist those who have been abused, neglected, or exploited. OVC develops publications to help educate both victims and caregivers in methods of dealing with the trauma brought on by elder abuse and mistreatment. OVC has also created a series of three DVDs designed for specific audiences. Using firsthand accounts from older victims, these materials will help victim advocates, law enforcement officers, judges, and other professionals learn how to communicate effectively with victims and find them appropriate resources for intervention and support.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is developing a data collection instrument that will enable it to use existing information to analyze the crime of elder abuse. BJS is also pursuing a project that will assess the records of adult protective services offices and law enforcement offices to provide insight into which elder abuse cases are reported to law enforcement, which are not reported, and why.

November 2011
The Justice Department’s researchers, experts, and statisticians all agree: elder abuse is a serious issue that warrants our attention.
–Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy
     Assistant Attorney General
  2010 World Elder Abuse Awareness
     Day Event
Fast Facts
  • In 2009, 11 percent of older people responding to a phone survey reported experiencing at least one form of mistreatment—emotional, physical, or sexual. (The study did not include any individuals in residential care or with severe cognitive incapacity.)
  • Financial exploitation by a family member was reported by 5.2 percent of older people in 1 year.
  • Approximately 4.6 percent of adults over age 60 reported experiencing some form of emotional mistreatment in the past year, and only 8 percent of these individuals reported the event to the police.
  • It is estimated that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation, or self-neglect reported to authorities, about five more go unreported.

Sources: National Elder Mistreatment Study; Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America

Contact Us
Office of Justice Programs
810 Seventh Street, NW
Washington, DC 20531
Phone: 202–307–0703
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This file is provided for reference purposes only. It was current when produced, but is no longer maintained and may now be outdated. Please send an email for questions or for further information.