Aging In Place

3/20/2024 | By Terri L. Jones

When we hear about elder abuse – a defenseless older person physically or emotionally mistreated – most of us imagine the abuser as a stranger. But the sad truth is that family members represent nearly 60% of elder abusers, with two-thirds of those abusers being the adult children or spouses.

A potentially volatile situation

As the country ages and many seniors choose to spend their remaining years in the comfort of their own homes, adult children are more frequently called upon to care for their aging parents. Some may move back home for financial, health, or substance use reasons. Whatever the reason, this new living arrangement can come with baggage and friction and can sometimes even turn volatile.

Most of the time, this abuse is emotional, but it can also be physical or financial. In many cases, the elderly parent doesn’t report elder abuse by family members. Their reasons can be complex: because of love for their kids, due to guilt and shame about the job they did as a parent, or because they fear the alternative – going to live in a nursing home or having no one to care for them.

Why it happens

The “cycle of abuse” explains elder abuse by family members in some cases, because the parents were abusive to their children or a spouse was abusive. Violence becomes a learned behavior that repeats itself through the generations. This abuse may be perpetrated as revenge or “reverse violence” for pain inflicted upon them.

The stress of caregiving can also trigger elder abuse, especially if accompanies by a lack of support from other family members or outside resources. Feeling overwhelmed and powerless to change things, adult children may take out their frustration on their mom or dad. Additionally, mental illness or use of substances by the adult child can increase the likelihood of abuse.

Know your options: Home Care Professionals

The shift in the balance of power between the adult child and parent can also have tragic results. With the child now having the upper hand in the relationship, they are free to control – and even mistreat – a parent who has controlled them. However, research has shown that this reversal in the parent/child hierarchy can also have the opposite effect, causing the parent to lash out at the adult child.

How to prevent it

A son is angry at his mother, who's sitting outside in her wheelchair. Article on elder abuse by family members. Image of angry caregiver by Satjawat Boontanataweepol

If you or one of your siblings is considering moving in with your parent, enter into this arrangement with your eyes wide open.

Be realistic.

Know that living with your mom or dad again, after many years on your own, can be challenging and stressful, especially if you are providing care for them. If you harbor any resentment toward your parent or you don’t have adequate support, living under the same roof may not be a wise choice.

Do your due diligence.

If you decide to take this step, be prepared. Learn as much as you can about providing care and what you may encounter along this path (your local Area on Aging may be able to help). Also educate yourself about cognitive impairments, how these impairments may cause your parent’s personality to change, including becoming anxious, angry, and even violent, and the most effective ways to deal with this behavior.

Take care of yourself.

Don’t let your stress get out of control. Take time for yourself by arranging for support, whether from other family members, professional home care workers, or adult daycare. If you need a few days to decompress, respite care can also be a great option. In addition, you should always have someone to talk to, such as a trusted friend or therapist, when you need a relief valve.

How to report elder abuse

If you suspect an elder abuse by family (or from any other source), use the resources below to take the appropriate action:

Related: Find more information about elder abuse and the signs 

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over 10 years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones