Reactions to Elder Abuse and Neglect

Feeling guilty, anxious, confused, ashamed, or fearful is a very common reaction to abuse or neglect.

You may also become depressed because you see yourself and/or your situation as hopeless and you may begin to avoid others. Many older people do not speak up about what is going on in their own home, which can lead to even more abuse. Sometimes they suffer the pain in silence because of such mistaken beliefs as:

  • “Family matters are private and should stay that way.” If you believe this, then you are less likely to seek help. But without help, chances are that the abuse and/or neglect will worsen.
  • “I have no one to turn to who can help.” It is easy to believe that nobody is available to help, especially since your relative may be isolating you from others. But there are people who will care about you and help you – perhaps a neighbor, friend, doctor, nurse, clergy member – if you can find a way to let them know you are unhappy at home.
  • “The abuse is my fault.” The natural inclination is to blame oneself for the abuse or neglect in order to feel more in control of a situation that is out of your control. Also, part of the self-blame may come from feeling guilty, often a common reaction to being mistreated. You may believe that you did something wrong and therefore you somehow caused the abuse. But no matter what happened in the past – even if you made mistakes you deeply regret – it is never okay for someone to hurt you.
  • “The consequences of speaking up are worse than keeping quiet.” You may be concerned that if you tell an outsider about your situation, you will have to move from your home or, perhaps, live alone. Or you may become confused about the appropriate action to take because of the impact on your family if you report it to the authorities. Speaking up does not automatically mean strangers will control your life. It does increase the likelihood that you will find someone who can help you problem-solve workable alternatives.
  • “I’m so ashamed and embarrassed that my own family member could be behaving in an abusive or neglectful way.” Older people often are ashamed about the mistreatment they are experiencing, so they avoid telling anyone about it. Feeling ashamed usually comes from a fear that others will judge you or your family member harshly if they knew what was happening, and believing their criticism would be too difficult to tolerate. But there are many people who would want to help you and who would not judge you or your relative(s). You just need to ignore those people who do not understand and keep speaking up until you find those who do.
  • “I’m afraid if I break the “family secret,” the person hurting me will get back at me in a way worse than what is happening now.” Being afraid that the abuser will retaliate is a real concern. However, doing nothing will rarely end an abusive situation; in fact, it usually gets worse. When seeking help, be sure to discuss your very real safety concerns so that a safety plan can be developed to fit your particular circumstances.


Where to Get Help

When a Family Member Causes Harm

What Are Some Examples of Elder Abuse and Neglect?

How Do I Tell If I Am Being Abused or Neglected?

What Should I Do if a Family Member is Hurting Me?


This resource provides brief, general information about this topic. It does not take the place of specific instructions you may receive from health care or service providers. Copyright NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital 2006. All rights reserved.