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 but, more often than not, you'll know and feel safe with them. They're usually in a position of trust and power, such as a health or care professional, relative or neighbour.

Different forms of abuse and neglect

There are many forms of abuse and neglect.

Sexual abuse

This includes:

  • indecent exposure
  • sexual harassment
  • inappropriate looking or touching
  • sexual teasing or innuendo
  • sexual photography
  • being forced to watch pornography or sexual acts
  • being forced or pressured to take part in sexual acts
  • rape

Physical abuse

This includes:

  • being hit, slapped, pushed or restrained
  • being denied food or water
  • not being helped to go to the bathroom when you need to
  • misuse of your medicines

Psychological abuse

This includes:

  • emotional abuse
  • threats to hurt or abandon you
  • stopping you from seeing people
  • humiliating, blaming, controlling, intimidating or harassing you
  • verbal abuse
  • cyberbullying and isolation
  • 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 unfair treatment relating to your:

  • race
  • gender and gender identity
  • age
  • disability
  • sexual orientation
  • religion

Financial abuse

This could be someone stealing money or other valuables from you. Or it might be that someone appointed to look after your money on your behalf is using it inappropriately or coercing you to spend it in a way you're not happy with.

Internet scams and doorstep crime are also common forms of financial abuse. 

Neglect

Neglect includes not being provided with enough food or with 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're isolated and don't have much contact with friends, family or neighbours
  • you have memory problems or difficulty communicating
  • you become dependent on your carer
  • you don't get on with your carer
  • your carer is addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • your carer relies on you for a home, or financial or emotional support

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

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

There are many people you can 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
  • talk to professionals such as your GP or social worker about your concerns, or ask to speak to your local council's adult safeguarding team or co-ordinator
  • call Action on Elder Abuse on 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 abuse in older people: advice for carers

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

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

Behavioural signs of abuse in an older person include:

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

Also, their home may be cold, or unusually dirty or untidy, or you might notice things missing.

Other signs include a sudden change in their finances, such as 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 being abused, 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 changes in personality.

Don't ignore your concerns, though. Doing so 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. However, be mindful that if they've been abused, they may be reluctant to talk about it because they are afraid of making the situation worse, don't want to cause trouble, or may be experiencing coercion or threats.

It's best not to promise the person that you won't tell anyone what's been said. 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 would like you to do. Let them know who can help them and tell them you can seek 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 charge into action if this isn't what they want.

Who to contact if an older person is being abused

If an adult has told you about their situation, you might want to talk to other people who know them 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 free, confidential Action on Elder Abuse helpline on 0808 808 8141.

Page last reviewed: 10/01/2018
Next review due: 10/01/2021