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Abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults

Everyone has the right to live in safety, free from abuse and neglect.

Abuse and neglect can occur anywhere: in your own home or a public place, while you are in hospital or attending a day centre, or in a college or care home.

You may be living alone or with others. The person causing the harm may be a stranger to you, but more often than not the person is known, and it can be the case that you usually feel safe with them. They are usually in a position of trust and power, such as a health and care professional, relative or neighbour.

Different forms of abuse and neglect

There are many forms of abuse and neglect, including:

Sexual abuse

This includes indecent exposure, sexual harassment, inappropriate looking or touching, as well as rape. Sexual teasing or innuendo, sexual photography, subjection to pornography, witnessing sexual acts, and sexual acts that you didn't agree to or were pressured into consenting to all count as sexual abuse.

Physical abuse

This can include being assaulted, hit, slapped, pushed, restrained, being denied food or water, or not being helped to go to the bathroom when you need to go. It can also include misuse of your medication.

Psychological abuse

This includes someone emotionally abusing you or threatening to hurt or abandon you, stopping you from seeing people, and humiliating, blaming, controlling, intimidating or harassing you. It also includes verbal abuse, cyber bullying and isolation, or an unreasonable and unjustified withdrawal of services or support networks.

Domestic abuse

This is typically an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse by someone who is, or has been, an intimate partner or family member.

Discriminatory abuse

This includes some forms of harassment, slurs or similar unfair treatment relating to race, gender and gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.

Financial abuse

This could be someone stealing money or other valuables from you, or it might be someone who is appointed to look after your money on your behalf using the money inappropriately or coercing you into spending it in a way you are not happy with. Internet scams and doorstep crime are also common forms of financial abuse. 


Neglect is also a form of abuse. Neglect includes not being provided with enough food or the right kind of food, or not being taken proper care of. Leaving you without help to wash or change dirty or wet clothes, not getting you to a doctor when you need one, or not making sure you have the right medicines all count as neglect.

Abuse in your home

You're more at risk of abuse at home if:

  • you are isolated and don't have much contact with friends, family or neighbours
  • you have memory problems or have difficulty communicating
  • you become dependent on someone as a carer
  • you don't get on with your main carer
  • your carer is addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • your carer relies on you for a home, or financial and emotional support

Find out more about abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault.

I think I am being abused or neglected: what can I do?

Who to talk to if you feel you are being abused or neglected:

  • Don't worry about making a fuss - tell someone you trust as soon as possible.
  • Speak to friends or careworkers, who may have an understanding of the situation and be able to take steps quickly to improve the situation. 
  • You can also talk to professionals such as your GP or social worker about your concerns, or you could ask to speak to your local council's Adult Safeguarding team or co-ordinator.
  • Call Action on Elder Abuse 0808 808 8141 for advice.
  • If you believe a crime is being, or has been, committed - whether it's physical abuse or financial - talk to the police or ask someone you trust to do so on your behalf.

Spotting signs of elder abuse: advice for carers

It's not always easy to spot the symptoms of abuse. Someone being abused may make excuses for why they're bruised, they don't want to go out or talk to people, or they're short of money.

It's important to know the signs of abuse and, where they are identified, gently share your concerns with the person being abused. If you wait, hoping the person will tell you what's been happening to them, you could delay matters and allow the abuse to continue. 

Behavioural signs of abuse in an older person include them:

  • becoming quiet and withdrawn 
  • being aggressive or angry for no obvious reason 
  • looking unkempt, dirty or thinner than usual 
  • sudden changes in their normal character, such as appearing helpless, depressed or tearful
  • physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, wounds, fractures and other untreated injuries 
  • the same injuries happening more than once 
  • not wanting to be left on their own or alone with particular people 
  • being unusually lighthearted and insisting there's nothing wrong

Additionally, their home may lack heat, be unusually dirty or untidy, or you might notice things missing.

Other signs to watch out for include a sudden change in their finances, not having as much money as usual to pay for shopping or regular outings, or getting into debt. Watch out for any official or financial documents that seem unusual, and for documents relating to their finances that suddenly go missing.

If you feel someone you know is showing signs of abuse, talk to them to see if there's anything you can do to help. If they're being abused, they may not want to talk about it straight away, especially if they've become used to making excuses for their injuries or change in personality.

Don't ignore your concerns, though. That could allow any abuse to carry on or escalate.

I'm worried about someone who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. What should I do?

Start by talking to the person in private if you feel able to do so. Mention some of the things that concern you - for instance, that they've become depressed and withdrawn, have been losing weight, or seem to be short of money.

Let them talk as much as they want to, but be mindful that if they've been abused, they may be reluctant to talk about it because they're afraid of making the situation worse, because they don't want to cause trouble or they might be experiencing coercion by someone or being threatened in some way.

It's best not to promise the person you won't tell anyone what you've heard. If an adult is being abused or neglected, it's important to find help for them and stop the harm. Stay calm while the person is talking, even if you're upset by what you hear, otherwise they may become more upset themselves and stop telling you what's been going on.

It can be very difficult for an abused or neglected person to talk about what's been happening to them. Unless you're concerned for their immediate health and safety and feel it's vital to act straight away, give them time to think about what they'd like to do.

If you're right and the person has been abused or neglected, ask them what they'd like you to do. Let them know who can help them. Say you can seek some help on their behalf if they want or if it's difficult for them to do so themselves. It's important to listen to what they say and not to charge into action if this isn't what they want.

Who to contact about elder abuse

If an adult has told you about their situation, you might want to talk to other people who know the person you're worried about to find out if they have similar concerns.

There are also professionals you can contact. You can pass on your concerns to the person's GP and social worker. Local authorities have social workers who deal specifically with cases of abuse and neglect. Call the person's local council and ask for the adult safeguarding co-ordinator.

You can also speak to the police about the situation. Some forms of abuse are crimes, so the police will be interested. If the person is in danger or needs medical attention, call their GP if known or emergency services if immediate assistance is required.

You can also call the Action on Elder Abuse helpline, free and in confidence, on 0808 808 8141.

Article provided by NHS Choices

See original on NHS Choices

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