Domestic Violence in the Elderly

Domestic violence is abuse, usually physical but sometimes emotional, perpetrated by a family or household member. The elderly, who can often be forced to rely on their family for physical and financial support, can be particularly vulnerable to domestic violence.

Elder abuse is categorized as a form of domestic violence, since it generally takes place in the victim’s place of residence. It can be defined as the intentional actions of a person that cause harm, or risk of harm, to a senior. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, 10 percent of seniors suffer some type of abuse, most frequently at the hands of a trusted person known well by the victim. The Center’s research indicates that for every case that is reported, five cases go unreported. Abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse.

Spousal Abuse in the Elderly

We look up to older people for wisdom. They have lived and “been there, done that.” It used to be father knows best. But for some of us, we’d much rather ask grandpa for advice.

The loneliness of old age is probably the saddest reality that younger people are not aware of. Adult children who have elderly parents with either spouse providing the care must bear one thing in mind: their father or mother could be the victim of spousal abuse in the elderly.

When you hear of spousal abuse in the elderly, what comes immediately to mind? The logical thinking is that the abuse takes place in a facility or in a hospital. Unless you’re a social worker or a geriatrics expert, you would never think that the abuse might be coming directly from the spouse.

People in their 60’s like to believe that they have finally paid their dues. After raising children and providing for their needs, they deserve some R&R. But what if one spouse falls ill and is suddenly dependent on the other? There would be resentment naturally, a feeling of “being stuck” caring for the spouse and the loss of freedom. The desire to travel and engage in new activities is cut short –without any warning – so this sudden impediment can cause psychological scars. When there’s incessant psychological battering people logically overreact. They take out their anger on the person they are caring for. Let’s not forget the other reasons why abuse of the elderly is prevalent: drug and alcohol abuse, mental problems and a family history of anti-social behavior.

Clues to Spousal Abuse in the Elderly

Adult children of elderly parents, health care professionals and attendants in homes for the aged must constantly watch out for signs of elderly abuse. Edith Wahl and Sheila Purdy, who called elderly abuse the “hidden crime” were commissioned by CLEO (Center for Legal Education in Ontario) to do a study of elderly abuse. They mentioned signs that deserved our vigilance.

  • Over-medication / over-sedation
  • Dehydration, lack of nourishment
  • Poor hygiene, untreated sores, rashes
  • Unexplained bruises, swelling
  • Depression and anxiety

Elderly Abuse: Resources

Fully acknowledging the widespread occurrence of spousal abuse in the elderly, Canada and the US have set up similar community resources that abused individuals and their loved ones can turn to for help.

While resources may vary from province to province and state to state, people requiring assistance should use these community resources:

  • Personal physicians and public nurses
  • Senior community centers
  • Police
  • Hospital geriatric teams
  • Community information centers
  • Lawyers and other professionals
  • The media
  • Long term care ombudsman programs
  • Activity moderators in seniors’ homes
  • Social workers


Everyone in society has a moral obligation to keep seniors safe from harm. Most professionals in contact with seniors, such as doctors, social workers, and federal, state and local government employees are mandated by law to report suspected abuse. Individuals suspecting abuse should call the police if a senior is believed to be in immediate danger. If the danger is not immediate, anonymous reports can be made to local adult protective services offices or, in the case of seniors in nursing homes, to the long-term care ombudsman.