How to Stand Up for an Elder in Need

Reporting elder abuse can bring up a lot of difficult emotions and uncertainty. You may ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, or how you can be sure an older adult is getting the help they need. You may also question whether you’re doing enough to help the person. As difficult as reporting elder abuse can be, it’s important for you to stand up for an older adult in need. Here are some tips for communicating effectively in different situations.

Reporting elder abuse

Tip 1: Try to be specific as you can in your description

You don’t need “hard evidence” to report abuse. In many situations, abuse can be subtle or happen gradually. However, the more specific details you can provide, the clearer the picture of abuse can become. For example, if you’re worried that your neighbor is not taking care of himself, instead of reporting, “My neighbor is having a hard time taking care of himself”, try “I’ve noticed that my neighbor wears the same outfit over and over again and it is looking very dirty. When I come to the door, I smell urine and even feces. The house also smells like there is trash accumulating inside.”

Tip 2: Understand the elder does have the right to refuse services

As painful as it may be, unless the older adult no longer has the mental capacity to make their own decisions, he or she does have the right to refuse help. A senior may refuse to admit they’re being abused because they’re afraid the caregiver will retaliate, or because they’re worried about who will take care of them if their abusive caregiver is removed. Sadly, an elder adult may view having an abusive caretaker as better than having no caretaker and being forced to move out of their own home. In these situations, if it is safe for you to do so, continue to stay in contact and encourage the elder to consider alternatives to home care. For example:

  • Taking tours of assisted living or other facilities, without any immediate pressure to move, may help dispel myths or eradicate the older person’s fears about moving
  • Offering services on a trial basis can help the elder see the positive changes they can have on his or her life, and make them more open to change. For example, if self-neglect is an issue, encourage them to try housekeeping help for a month, or a meal delivery service for a few weeks.
  • Keeping the older adult and caregiver connected to support services can help reduce feelings of isolation and depression, two major risk factors for elder abuse. Also, the more support there is for the elder and the caregiver, the more eyes there will be to watch for any warning signs of abuse.
  • If a family caregiver is suspected of abuse, other family members may have the best chance of convincing the older adult to consider alternative care. Some families may feel that care should stay in the family no matter what, but if the caregiver is abusive, it is safer for everyone to consider other options.

Tip 3: Keep your eyes and ears open

If you see future incidences of abuse, continue to call and report them. Each elder abuse report is a snapshot of what is going on. The more information that you can provide, the better the chance the elder has to get the level of care he or she needs. Older adults can be increasingly isolated from society and with no school or work to attend, it can be easy for elder abuse cases to go unnoticed for long periods.

Connecting a senior to services

  • Eldercare Locator provides a database of services for seniors in your area, either online or by calling 1-800-677-1116.
  • Senior centers or senior service organizations can also provide tips and resources for services in your area.
  • The elder’s healthcare team may have suggestions for services. Social workers, both outpatient and in the hospitals, can also be a good resource.
  • Religious organizations often have services to help seniors stay connected such as transportation, meals, or friendly visitors.
  • Legal aid groups in your community can provide affordable legal help. The Center for Elder Rights Advocacy has a state by state directory of legal hotlines.

Special situations: Abuse in the home and self-neglect

Sadly, two of the most common sources of elder abuse are abuse by a primary caregiver—often an adult child—and self-neglect. Here are some tips for handling these situations.

Elder abuse in the home

  • Try to have different family members or neutral parties involved in the older adult’s care to provide checks and balances, including reviewing finances. The greater the cognitive or physical impairment of the elder, the more people need to be involved in their care. While there is no excuse for abuse, caregiving can be extremely taxing, both mentally and physically. Caregiving for an illness like dementia will often involve around-the-clock supervision, constant vigilance, and the need to cope with disturbing behavior. If a caregiver is unable to get any respite, has disrupted sleep, or is experiencing his or her own health problems, there is a greater risk for elder abuse.
  • Feelings of shame can often keep elder abuse hidden. You may not want to believe a family member could be capable of abusing a loved one, or you may even think that the older adult would be angry at you for speaking up. However, it’s important to remember that everyone deserves to live with dignity and respect. The earlier you intervene in a situation of elder abuse, the better the outcome will be for everyone involved.

Look for common risk factors for elder abuse in the home

  • Substance abuse can impede a caregiver’s ability to provide adequate care. It also increases the risk of financial abuse as the caregiver struggles to finance a substance abuse habit. The elder may be self-medicating due to the abuse, and shame may prevent them from seeking help.
  • A history of domestic violence or other violence can often be a marker for elder abuse later in life.


You may notice that an older family member, friend, or neighbor living alone is no longer taking care of themselves. They may appear increasingly disheveled, lack basic personal hygiene, or their home may be growing dirtier and dirtier, while they make no attempt to address the problem. Unfortunately, in many cases of self-neglect, the older person will refuse to get assistance. However, there are still things that you can do to help.

  • Remember the older adult is a person who deserves dignity and respect. He or she may be in denial, feel ashamed about needing help, or worried about having to leave home. Don’t stop checking in with the older adult, even if you are brushed off. Enlist others to express their feelings of concern to the elder. Sometimes a peer or a neutral party, such as a geriatric care manager, may have a better chance of getting through.
  • Make sure the older adult is connected with medical services. Self-neglect can be a sign of depression, grief, dementia, or other medical causes. If you know the person’s doctor, you can share your concerns. While the doctor may not be able to discuss the case with you if you do not have the older adult’s permission, you can write a letter or call to make sure that your concerns are heard.
  • It can be a real challenge to respect an older adult’s right to autonomy while at the same time making sure they are properly cared for. If you are concerned that a person’s ability to take care of themselves safely is compromised, you can look into legal guardianship or legal conservatorship. If there is not an appropriate family member available, a guardian can be appointed by the court.

Related links for reporting elder abuse

What services are available to stop abuse? Provides resources in the community for stopping abuse, including counseling, legal services, and case management. (National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse)

Elder Abuse and Neglect: In Search of Solutions – Talks about challenges of family, caregiving and abuse, and ways to help, from both the family and caregiver perspective. (American Psychological Association)

Self-neglect – Provides information on self-neglect including how to advocate for the older adult and the limitations of Adult Protective Services. (Aging and Disability Services Administration)

Center for Elder Rights Advocacy – Provides a state by state directory of legal aid websites and hotlines. (CERA)

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys – Public section of site that defines elder law, issues to consider, questions to ask when finding an attorney, and how to find an elder law attorney. (NAELA)

National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers – Describes what a geriatric care manager is, their qualifications and credentials, questions to ask, and how to find one. (NAPGCM)


©2001-2011. All rights reserved.
Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Joanna Saisan, MSW. Last Updated June 2011.