Elder abuse is generally defined to include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, financial exploitation, neglect, abandonment, and self-neglect. Some definitions also refer to the failure to take reasonable steps to prevent harm caused by self-neglect. Every state has an adult protective services law with definitions, and many states have other relevant civil or criminal laws. Definitions vary from law to law and state to state.

Elder abuse typically is characterized by (a) intentional or negligent action that (b) causes harm, serious risk of harm, or distress to (c) vulnerable older persons. Some definitions of abuse also require a relationship of trust between the older person and the abuser, while others restrict the term to "vulnerable adults or elders."


Elder abuse can cover many types of abuse. Common types of elder abuse include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, abandonment, and neglect. Although legal definitions vary from state to state, many states incorporate these types of abuse into their criminal and civil statutes.

  • Physical – the use of physical force resulting in physical injury, pain, or impairment to a vulnerable elder. Physical abuse can include, but is not limited to, acts of violence, inappropriate use of drugs, and force feeding.
  • Emotional – the infliction of pain or distress via verbal or nonverbal means. Emotional abuse can include, but is not limited to, verbal assault, insults, restricting and elder's access to family, and treating an elder like an infant.
  • Financial – the illegal or improper use of a vulnerable elder's property, funds, or assets. Examples include forging an elder's signature, cashing checks without the elder's permission, and stealing possessions.
  • Neglect – the refusal or failure by those responsible, sometimes the elder themselves (self-neglect), to provide life necessities, such as food, water, or shelter for a vulnerable elder.
  • Abandonment – the desertion of a vulnerable elder by the person who has assumed responsibility for that elder.
  • Sexual – a non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with a vulnerable elder, including any sexual contact with an elder incapable of giving consent.