You are here:

Vulnerable people

  • Overview

Vulnerable adults

Vulnerable adults are people who are at a greater than normal risk of abuse. Older people are vulnerable, especially those who are unwell, frail, confused and unable either to stand up for themselves or keep track of their affairs.

Abuse can happen to older people in their home, in hospital, and in nursing and residential homes.

Older people who are most at risk of abuse at home include:

  • those who are isolated and don't have much contact with friends, family or neighbours
  • people with memory problems or difficulty communicating with others
  • people who don't get on with their carer
  • those whose carer is addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • people whose carer depends on them for a home and financial and emotional support

Other vulnerable adults include people who are open to abuse because of learning difficulties, physical disabilities or mental illness.

Becoming dependent on someone else, whether a carer, family member, friend or professional health worker (such as a staff member in a residential or nursing home or hospital), can put vulnerable people at risk of abuse. Abusers may create a feeling of dependency and may also make the vulnerable person feel isolated, that nobody else cares for them and that they're on their own.

Broadly speaking, a vulnerable adult is aged 18 or over, receives or may need community care services because of a disability, age or illness, and who is or may be unable to take care of themselves or protect themselves against significant harm or exploitation.

If you're worried that someone you know is vulnerable and may be being abused, see the section below called What to do and who to contact.

What is elder abuse?

Vulnerable adult abuse happens when a vulnerable adult or older person is hurt, bullied, mistreated, exploited or neglected. The abuse can come from anyone who has contact with the person and is someone they know and ought to feel safe with. Any vulnerable adult can be subjected to abuse; it doesn't matter if they're male or female, rich or poor, or whether or not they're disabled.

Vulnerable adult abuse happens in different ways. It includes physical abuse, where the abuser hits, pushes, kicks or treats the person roughly, or worse. This treatment may leave the vulnerable adult with physical as well as psychological damage.

Abuse also includes mental abuse or bullying. This could involve threats, name-calling, insults and meanness. Making a vulnerable person feel scared, frightened, unhappy or depressed is all part of bullying.

Other kinds of abuse

Abuse can be sexual, for instance being touched or hit in private places, or even being sexually assaulted. Sexual abuse can be verbal, too, through comments and jokes that make the older person feel threatened or embarrassed.

Vulnerable adults can also be subjected to financial abuse or theft. This can be as straightforward as someone stealing money or valuables, or any item they know the person cares about. It can also involve keeping some or all of the money that should be used to pay bills or not handing over the change after a shopping trip.

Neglect is also a form of abuse. This includes not providing enough or the right kind of food for a vulnerable adult or not taking good enough care of them. Leaving someone unwashed or in dirty or wet clothes, not getting them to a doctor when they need one, or not making sure they have the right medicines all count as neglect.

Unintended abuse

Not all cases of abuse are intentional. It can happen because the people looking after a vulnerable adult don't have the training or knowledge they need. While trying to help a vulnerable adult, a friend or family member may bruise them because they haven't been shown how to help them up from a chair, for example.

Vulnerable adults may need more time to walk from one room to another, or may have fixed ideas about when they want to eat and what food they would like. Anyone who has contact with a vulnerable adult may unintentionally cause distress by not allowing them enough time to complete a task or by not finding out about their likes and dislikes. Frustration can also set in, and it may be difficult for a friend, relative or carer not to pass this on.

Vulnerable adults can be subject to abuse by the people they should be able to trust. Sometimes, although it's very rare, this can come from a family member who is their carer. More commonly, abuse comes from people who have a family link, friends, paid carers and health professionals.

Why it happens

Abuse of elderly people can happen for a wide variety of reasons and take many different patterns. Sometimes abuse happens just once, possibly as a result of a sudden outburst. In other cases, abuse may be premeditated, happen repeatedly and, if not stopped, can go on for years. Understanding why it happens may help you notice when it's happening to someone you know.

Sometimes abuse happens because the carer or someone close to the elderly person doesn't know how to lift or physically support them. This lack of knowledge and training can result in bruising, falls and other injuries.

Older people, especially those who need a lot of care, tend to move slowly, respond slowly to questions and conversation, and may be confused or repeat themselves often. Frustration with the elderly person can result in rough handling and anger.

Abuse may happen because of a long-standing pattern of behaviour within a family. Perhaps the people involved have never got on well, or there's a history of aggressive or violent behaviour.

The primary carer is rarely responsible for abuse, but it's possible they, a family member or friend may find caring too difficult and stressful. They may not be able to give the care the elderly person needs or may find their caring role has cut them off from their old life, leaving them isolated.

The carer may have health problems themselves. Research by Carers UK has shown that carers who give high levels of care to a relative or friend are more than twice as likely to have poor health as people who aren't carers.

Abuse can also happen when someone is being cared for in hospital or in a residential, nursing or other type of home. The hospital or home may not be managed very well and the staff not supported properly, spending much of their work time working alone. Lack of proper training and supervision can also contribute to elder abuse.

What are the signs to look for?

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. Then you can 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.

Behaviour signs to watch out for include:

  • 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

There are also material signs to watch out for, such as 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.

What to do and who to contact

If you think an older person is being abused, don't ignore your concerns. It could make a huge difference to that person to have someone talk about the subject with them and help bring everything out into the open. You can also assure the person they're not on their own and that there are people and organisations ready to help.

Start by talking to the older person in private. 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. If they've been abused, they may be reluctant to talk about it because they're afraid of making the situation worse or because they don't want to cause trouble.

It's best not to say you won't tell anyone what you've heard. If an older person is being abused, it's important to find help for them and stop the abuse. Stay calm while the older 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.

If you're right and the older person has been abused, ask them what they'd like you to do. Tell them about the different organisations and people who can help. Say you can go to them 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.

It can be very difficult for an abused older 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.

Who to contact

Don't keep your worries to yourself. After the older person 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. Call your local council and ask for the Adult Protection or 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.

You can also call the Action on Elder Abuse helpline, free and in confidence, on 0808 808 8141. If the person is in danger or needs medical attention, call the emergency services.


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 155 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

smorty80 said on 21 October 2013

The advice given is very good and demonstrative of what should occur if you have concerns. Social Services should be the 'go to' for these cases, who together with the vast resources at their disposal, should be able to help understand the concerns and help bring about a change in the persons circumstances.

I personally have taken these steps, following the hospitalisation of an elderly family member and submitted a 3 page letter to Norfolk Social Services. This was over 3 months ago and I have not recieved an acknowledgement of my concerns. I have tried numerous times to contact via telephone and have also faxed, asking for a simple "Yes we acknowledge your concerns".

Whilst writing the letter was a required action, it took alot to externalise these feelings and concerns due to the troublesome domestic situation within my family and the hostility it might generate. I asked to lodge my concerns anonymously.

My concerns remain present and are increasing, yet noone from social services has ever requested to speak with me further, or discuss any aspect of my letter.

Whether you are 8, or 88, safeguarding is for all.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Page last reviewed: 19/08/2013

Next review due: 19/08/2015

Call Carers Direct on 0300 123 1053

Confidential information and advice for carers.

Lines are open 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday (except bank holidays), 11am to 4pm at weekends. Request a free call back or an interpreted call back in one of more than 170 languages including ربي, বাংলা, 中文, Français, ગુજરાતી, Polski, Português, ਪੰਜਾਬੀ, Soomaali, Español, Türkçe and .اردو.

You can talk to an adviser live online or send a query by email.

Find out more about the Carers Direct helpline.

Services near you

Looking after someone with dementia

Practical information and advice for anyone who is looking after someone with dementia

Care home options explained

A simple guide to the options for residential care, and what you can expect from a good care home