Defining Elder Abuse

Acknowledging the wide-spread abuse occurring in many nursing homes and care facilities across the country is just the first step. There is still a lot of work to be done to eradicate this issue and ensure the safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society. As we continue to raise awareness during Elder Abuse Awareness Month, we’d like to define what elder abuse is, and provide some resources that can help victims find justice and help. 

What is Elder Abuse?

Like any type of abuse, elder abuse comes in many different forms, can happen under a variety of circumstances, and can be the result of varying behaviors or inaction. The American Medical Association Department of Legislation defines elder abuse as

“an act or omission, which results in harm or threatened harm to the health or welfare of an elderly person.”

– AMA 

The California Welfare and Institutions Code includes abandonment, isolation, abduction, financial abuse, mental suffering, and neglect as forms of abuse alongside physical abuse. 

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is defined widely as:

“Non-accidental use of force that results in bodily injury, pain, or impairment. This includes, but is not limited to, being slapped, burned, cut, bruised or improperly physically restrained.”

– New York State Office of Children and Family Services. 

The California Welfare and Institutions Code includes these definitions, among others, for physical abuse:

(a) Assault, as defined in Section 240 of the Penal Code.

(b) Battery, as defined in Section 242 of the Penal Code.

(c) Assault with a deadly weapon or force likely to produce great bodily injury, as defined in Section 245 of the Penal Code.

(d) Unreasonable physical constraint, or prolonged or continual deprivation of food or water.

(e) Sexual assault

Common signs of physical abuse in nursing homes is bruising, unexplained injuries, tension between staff and resident, behavioral changes in the resident, as well as increase in other illnesses.


Neglect might be one of the harder forms of abuse to spot, especially if family members and friends are unable to, or restricted from, visiting their loved one in the nursing home or care facility. The California Welfare and Institutions Code defines neglect as:

(1) The negligent failure of any person having the care or custody of an elder or a dependent adult to exercise that degree of care that a reasonable person in a like position would exercise;

(2) The negligent failure of an elder or dependent adult to exercise that degree of self care that a reasonable person in a like position would exercise.

As well as the failure to assist with common and regular hygiene practices, feeding, clothing, and sheltering, and the neglect of medical and mental health needs. These are not all of the forms of neglect, but they are the primary forms found in nursing homes.

Common signs of neglect include a noticeable decline in hygiene, dirty sheets, room, or clothing. Staff might be unresponsive to requests and call bells, residents may not be taken to activities they enjoy, and you may notice an increase in other health issues and illnesses. 


It is no secret that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the nursing home and care facility industry. With restrictions in place that were meant to protect residents, we saw the rise of a major isolation problem. For many facilities, a balance was found, but this still became a huge issue for residents and sparked advocacy for the Essential Caregivers Act. The Essential Caregivers Act allowed key loved ones who doubled as primary caregivers to enter nursing homes and continue in that role. It was a tricky problem, but isolation can do as much harm as other forms of abuse. It is defined as: 

(1) Acts intentionally committed for the purpose of preventing, and that do serve to prevent, an elder or dependent adult from receiving his or her mail or telephone calls;

(2) Telling a caller or prospective visitor that an elder or dependent adult is not present, or does not wish to talk with the caller, or does not wish to meet with the visitor where the statement is false, is contrary to the express wishes of the elder or the dependent adult, whether he or she is competent or not, and is made for the purpose of preventing the elder or dependent adult from having contact with family, friends, or concerned persons;

(3) False imprisonment, as defined in Section 236 of the Penal Code;

(4) Physical restraint of an elder or dependent adult, for the purpose of preventing the elder or dependent adult from meeting with visitors.

Common signs of isolation are harder to pinpoint, but usually include staff evading visitors, denying visits, “lost” mail or letters, and the resident being absent from gatherings, events, or activities.

Invisible Abuse

PC: Artem Labunsky via Unsplash

Other forms of abuse can be hidden, or even masked by good intentions, such as the use of antipsychotic drugs. Forms of abuse like mental suffering can manifest as other issues such as severe depression, increased agitation, fear, and confusion. These can all be signs that something is off and a change in the resident’s schedule or care needs to be made. Often, unfortunately, residents may not be able to vocalize what exactly has happened, so it is more important than ever to pay attention to potential signs of abuse and be the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Learn more about the forms of abuse, signs you should look for, and Elder Abuse Awareness Month to better serve America’s elderly population.

If you or a loved one have been a victim of elder abuse, call Gharibian Law (877-875-1119) for a free consultation and the best legal representation.