What is elder abuse, the signs and how to take action

Main Content


Since 2014, the WA Elder Abuse Helpline, run by Advocare, has been a lifeline, receiving almost 6,000 calls from concerned older people, families, community members and service providers who have experienced or are at risk of elder abuse, or suspect it may be occurring.

Currently averaging about 38 calls per week, it’s widely acknowledged these figures merely skim the surface of a more significant, largely unrecognised and unreported issue.

So, what is elder abuse?

 1 in 6 people in Australia experienced elder abuse in 20231

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Elder Abuse is defined as ‘a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person’.

Psychological abuse was the most commonly reported form of elder abuse last year1

Elder abuse manifests in various forms:

  • Physical abuse involves acts such as slapping, hitting or restraining, resulting in psychological trauma and often visible injuries.
  • Emotional abuse inflicts mental anguish through insults, belittlement, intimidation or threats, profoundly eroding confidence and self-worth.
  • Financial abuse, often by trusted individuals, includes unauthorised use of finances, coercion to change wills, sign over property or outright theft of money and assets. Perpetrators may exploit an older person’s trust or dependence, siphoning away their resources and potentially leaving them financially destitute.
  • Sexual abuse may include exposure to sexually-explicit material, unwanted sexual contact, advances or coercion into sexual acts, severely violating an individual’s bodily autonomy and their sense of safety and dignity.
  • Neglect, occurs when caregivers fail to provide necessary care and support, potentially leading to physical discomfort, malnutrition or medical complications.
  • Isolation involves the prevention of an older person from having contact with relatives, friends, service providers and other people or restricting the person’s activities, thus increasing their sense of isolation.

You can find more information about what constitutes elder abuse in this useful booklet, Standing Strong and Speaking Out.

Cover of a booklet, entitled Standing Strong and Speaking Out, showing an older man holding cash with hands being held out asking for money.Susceptibility and risk

Some of the factors that may contribute to the incidence of elder abuse include health conditions, dependence on others, geographical or social isolation as well as ageism, family dynamics and caregiver stress.

Recognising the signs of elder abuse requires vigilance and sensitivity to various indicators. Signs of stress, anxiety or depression or physical indicators such as unexplained bruising or injuries can be red flags. Financial clues, such as difficulty paying bills or sudden weight loss can indicate neglect or exploitation.

Barriers to seeking help

 1 in 2 people who perpetrate elder abuse are family members1

 One of the greatest challenges in addressing elder abuse lies in the ambiguity surrounding its definition. Older people, perpetrators and bystanders alike often don’t realise what constitutes elder abuse. The line between genuine care and rigid management and subsequent infraction of a person’s rights as their care needs increase, often becomes blurred.

Other barriers to seeking help, for both older people and bystanders, involve fear of retaliation or further harm to the individual, especially if that person is a family member or caregiver upon whom the older person depends.

Feelings of shame, embarrassment or guilt also prevent older people from disclosing abuse. Limited access to support services and lack of awareness about available resources further deter or delay reporting.

These barriers create a culture of silence around elder abuse, making it challenging for victims to seek help and for bystanders to intervene.

Taking action

 1 in 3 people who experienced elder abuse sought help from a third party1

Elder abuse is everybody’s business, and it can happen anywhere and to anyone. Addressing the problem requires collective action. Understanding what it is, recognising the signs and knowing where to find help is critical.

If you, or someone you know, may be experiencing elder abuse of any form, the first step is to call the WA Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 724 679.  With consent, Advocare’s highly trained and experienced advocates will work sensitively with older people to offer information on how to recognise, respond to and safeguard themselves against various forms of elder abuse. Access, and referral to appropriate services, including free legal services, can be arranged with consent from the older person.

All services are confidential and provided free-of-charge.

Useful contacts:

WA Elder Abuse Helpline
1300 724 679
08 9479 7566 1800 655 566

Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC)
(08) 6458 1828
1800 199 888
www. kemh.health.wa.gov.au/other-services/sarc
WA Police Assistance
131 444

Full Stop Australia
(Sexual, domestic or family violence)
1800 385 578

Domestic, family and sexual violence (24-hour hotline)
1800 737 732

If you speak a language other than English, we can arrange assistance via the Translating and Interpreting Service (TISC).

To access an Aboriginal language interpreting service, please call Aboriginal Interpreting WA (AIWA) on 1800 330 331.

1 https://www.aihw.gov.au/family-domestic-and-sexual-violence/population-groups/older-people#abuse