Police Are Missing Millions of Cases of Elder Abuse: How to Recognize the Signs

By Leischen Stelter


It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million older adults are abused every year, however, only 1 in 24 cases are reported. This means that law enforcement is missing or overlooking a lot of cases, said Tim Hardiman, a 23-year veteran of the NYPD. It is imperative that officers know the signs of elder abuse and take the time to investigate suspected cases.

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to an older person, said Joy Solomon, director and managing attorney at The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention. Older adults often endure years of abuse and, on average, an older victim suffers for 10 years before coming forward about abuse. This is because the abuse almost always involves a person an elderly person trusts or loves, very similar to cases of domestic violence. In 90 percent of cases, a family member is the abuser.

Forms of Elder Abuse

Financial exploitation: This is the most common form of elder abuse. Perpetrators often find ways to access an older adult’s money and use it without permission. A Metlife Mature Market Institute study found that $2.9 billion is stolen from older adults each year in this country as the result of elder abuse. It is also considered exploitative to use an older person’s items (like cars, homes, etc.) without permission.

Physical abuse: Physical abuse can be different for older people than for other demographic groups. For example, it is considered physical abuse for a perpetrator to take away an older person’s cane or walker, rendering them immobile. In other cases, abusers may give an older person excessive medication to keep them drowsy or debilitated.

Sexual abuse: 18 percent of women who are raped are 60 years of age or older.

Emotional abuse: Emotional abuse is present in almost every case of abuse and encompasses a wide range of behavior. It can include put-downs, name calling, threats (e.g. abandoning the victim, putting the victim in a nursing home, physically harming the victim), the silent treatment, treating the victim like a child or even abusing the victim’s pet.

Neglect: Neglect of an older person’s basic needs, such as not providing proper hygiene, can be considered abusive if the perpetrator is a paid or court-appointed caregiver, or if a person claims to be a caregiver and then fails to provide care.

Polyvictimization: Often multiple forms of abuse occur, whether it’s multiple incidents or multiple abusers. Similar to other types of crime, once an older person has been abused, they are more likely to be victimized again.

There is a strong similarity between elder abuse and domestic violence. In both cases, victims are hesitant to press charges or go through with prosecution because they feel dependent on the perpetrator, said Hardiman.

About the author

In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence.