Spousal Abuse in the Elderly – Warning Signs

We look up to older people for wisdom. They have lived and “been there, done that.” It used to be father knows best. But for some of us, we’d much rather ask grandpa for advice.

In some countries – particularly in third world countries – children prefer to keep their aging parents at home. The idea of putting them in seniors’ facilities goes against family tradition. In industrialized countries like England, United States and Canada, elderly people who have lost their autonomy and have to rely entirely on someone to help them with their basic routines are put in special care homes: first, their children have lives and families of their own and second, elderly spouses are unable to give each other the type of assistance – physical and psychological – in their advanced years.

It’s bad enough when there is spousal abuse; it’s worse when there’s spousal abuse among the elderly. Older people are helpless and weak, have lost the use of some of their senses and fall ill more frequently.

The loneliness of old age is probably the saddest reality that younger people are not aware of. Adult children who have elderly parents with either spouse providing the care must bear one thing in mind: their father or mother could be the victim of spousal abuse in the elderly. This is confirmed by a study undertaken by the University of Pittsburgh last year and published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.

Spousal Abuse in the Elderly: Why?

A February 2005 study cited by Karen Hoffman revealed that a team of researchers in the University of Pittsburgh found that if a spouse is the caregiver, this could be fertile grounds for abuse, especially when the care-giving spouse has his own physical or mental problems to grapple with. What happens is that because caregiving generates stress, the spouses break down. The mental wear and tear becomes too much to bear, according to Scott Beach of the Pittsburgh Medical Center, that the caregiving spouse ends up screaming, yelling, using a harsh tone of voice, insulting and calling the other person names. Some care recipients have admitted to receiving this kind of verbal abuse from their spouses. This verbal abuse, if not checked in time, could lead to physical abuse and may even prove fatal.

When you hear of spousal abuse in the elderly, what comes immediately to mind? The logical thinking is that the abuse takes place in a facility or in a hospital. Unless you’re a social worker or a geriatrics expert, you would never think that the abuse might be coming directly from the spouse.

People in their 60s like to believe that they have finally paid their dues. After raising children and providing for their needs, they deserve some R&R. But what if one spouse falls ill and is suddenly dependent on the other? There would be resentment naturally, a feeling of “being stuck” caring for the spouse and the loss of freedom. The desire to travel and engage in new activities is cut short –without any warning – so this sudden impediment can cause psychological scars. When there’s incessant psychological battering people logically overreact. They take out their anger on the person they are caring for.

Let’s not forget the other reasons why abuse of the elderly is prevalent: drug and alcohol abuse, mental problems and a family history of anti-social behavior.

Clues to Spousal Abuse in the Elderly

Adult children of elderly parents, health care professionals and attendants in homes for the aged must constantly watch out for signs of elderly abuse. Edith Wahl and Sheila Purdy, who called elderly abuse the “hidden crime” were commissioned by CLEO (Center for Legal Education in Ontario) to do a study of elderly abuse. They mentioned signs that deserved our vigilance.

  • Over-medication / over-sedation
  • Dehydration, lack of nourishment
  • Poor hygiene, untreated sores, rashes
  • Unexplained bruises, swelling
  • Depression and anxiety

Given their helplessness, it is up to those who interact with the abused person to report any evidence of wrongdoing. Seniors, in their fragile state, are either too intimidated by their abuser or feel ashamed about the fact that they might be labeled whiners and complainers. The result is they’d rather not talk about the abuse to anyone.

Wahl and Purdy also mentioned that other signs may clue us into abuse of the elderly: lost material possessions such as eyeglasses, money, dentures, jewelry or hearing aids.

Depriving the elderly of their basic needs is a deplorable act and must not be tolerated by society.

Counselors are trained to elicit cooperation from the elderly so that they are encouraged to talk openly of their personal experiences, no matter how trivial they may seem. They must be asked regularly if they feel they can absolutely trust their caregivers, if there is money or other personal effects missing, if they’ve been hit physically or been screamed at, and if they feel that they’ve been administered medication more than which was prescribed by their doctors.

Elderly Abuse: Resources

Fully acknowledging the widespread occurrence of spousal abuse in the elderly, Canada and the US have set up similar community resources that abused individuals and their loved ones can turn to for help.

While resources may vary from province to province and state to state, people requiring assistance should use these community resources:

  • Personal physicians and public nurses
  • Senior community centers
  • Police
  • Hospital geriatric teams
  • Community information centers
  • Lawyers and other professionals
  • The media
  • Long term care ombudsman programs
  • Activity moderators in seniors’ homes
  • Social workers

Sympathy is a wonderful trait. Empathy, however, is a beautiful thing. Indeed, our lives are hectic and our own families expect much from us. It might be a nice gesture though if we could set aside some time for our aging parents – take them to lunch, to Sunday service, bring them along for a leisurely stroll.

If conversation becomes too awkward, reaching out should do the trick. They say touching is one of the best ways to express love. And compassion.



27 Responses

  1. Can someone that has done research on spousal abuse in the elderly reach out to me? I feel like I keep hitting a brick wall at every turn. I’ve talked to hospital social workers and nurses about the situation. I’ve told lawyers. I’ve told DSS. I’ve called the Sheriff. I’m literally getting nowhere. I have a situation that I’ve been trying desperately to help with and it seems like I’m in this tunnel with no light ahead. My whole family feels the same way, but all of us feel helpless. My phone number is 518-866-9663. I live in upstate NY. Any help is greatly appreciated! Thank you!

    1. This is an old post but it is my story too almost verbatim. I’m in California. Have you found help yet? If so can you maybe give me some ideas where to look. I’m holding on by a thread and afraid

  2. Try the local Agency on Aging (there’s one in every county). The personal physician for the cared-for person also should be contacted. That’s a start, anyway…

    1. My father has been physically abusive to my mother his whole life. Shes 72 and hes 86 and still hitting her. This is a type of physical abuse in the elderly we dont talk about

      1. She should hit the old bastard back !
        Make up for all the times he hit her !
        The old saying is “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
        For every action there is a reaction.

  3. Same in Illinois. I have names and numbers of agencies that should be able to help but none can give any direct advice. Verbal abuse from my 91 year old moms husband. He is 89 years old and plays people. Very nice to neighbors and others he meets but when in the house with my mother yells and screams at her. I’ve heard him while on the phone with mom and now he is starting to do this in front of me while I am visiting her. Not sure what to do as he has all power of attorney. He also suffers from macular degeneration and is almost blind but insists on taking care of her. Because she has early stage dementia she cannot change her power of attorney. HELP!

    1. Hi
      We are dealing with that exact issue minus his eye sight. He has bullied, videoed my mother on the floor crying after he has manipulated her and drove her to the point of frustration that she could no longer express herself. My mom is 85 as is he. She has filed for divorce. Did you find any way of having charges filed?
      Please feel free to contact me dsissin@sbcglobal.net thank you

  4. I am caretaker of my geriatric bedridden mother in her home. I do not live in her home. I will be receiving help for a few weeks of temporary care that is covered by her insurance. Her husband also my father has become increasingly verbally abusive and violent. We think he has dementia. He calls me a worthless piece of s*** and raises his cane and swings it at me. He also calls his wife my mother a worthless piece of s*** he raises his cane and slams it down on the couch or the bed where she lays or sets. She is bedridden. He screams at me to get the F out of his house. It is not his house they both own the house. She is afraid of him. I am afraid of him. I am strong and capable of defending myself should he attack me. I fear that I could hurt him. He does nothing inside the house to assist me to assist her. He does not help or care for her in any way. I’m at a loss I don’t know what to do. In Ohio. Any advice?

  5. Theresa. Some Days are peaceful and some days full of rage. Cursed at , wont talk, brings up something from the past, told to leave. All of this is unprovoked. Has to have things going his way. my kids dont know. Only a few friends, Lead a lonely life. Afraid I will die first and wont enjoy some peace. Prayer does help.

    1. Theresa can you call your pastor or priest, they might be able to help. I am going through something similar. i also dont know where to turn. I am afraid to ask elder abuse counselors to drop by for fear he will harm me. He is very abusive mentally to me and has hit me in the head a few times. he slams my wheel chair around with me in it. he calls me horrible names.I try to stay out of his way , he is one person one day and another person other times. I am at a loss!

  6. Lora again from above comment December 7th 2019. Today, september 4th 2020 . Area agency on aging is for elderly people on Medicaid. This is what I was told when I called them so there’s no help, guidance for me. I got my mother into a nursing home in July and away from my abusive demented 90 yr old father. They are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare doesn’t cover the nursing home so they are self pay $305 a day. My POS father goes to the nursing home to complain about the bill 4 days a week and now he says he’s not going to pay it. His neighbor that I don’t know got my phone number somehow and called me up to tell me that he’s been trapping wildlife in the backyard of his residential neighborhood, then discharging a firearm to kill it, if a little fox or raccoon is lucky it’s put out of its misery quickly. If it’s not lucky he is using a piece of rebar to stab it and bludgeon it while it’s in this live trap. Throws it into the backyard and now hes attracting dozens of buzzards that come down and eat them. When he wasn’t home I drove up there and walked into the backyard and it was dozens of little skulls all over the ground. With the constant stress that I’ve been under for over a year now and the chest pain that I have on a daily basis from dealing with this I feel like I may die before he does. And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ll never have peace.

  7. Oct 5 2020 rest in peace mom. Another one of the 212,000 covid death statistics. No more neglect and abuse from your husband. Lora P

  8. I’m 42 and in the Philippines and I don’t know where to get help. My 85yo father is verbally and physically abusing my 80yo mother who has anemia and gets tired easily. He’s very demanding and always giving orders to my mom. He often used his cane to hit my mom and myself and sometimes to neighbors. He’s become dangerous, always threatening to kill us, always looking for a knife or a stone to throw at us. Each day is war at home. Upon reading all the comments here, it’s nice to know that I am not alone in this situation but it seems that my national government and local government unit don’t have solution or help for this specific abuse problem. Honestly, my mom and I want him dead because it’s the only way for us to have peace. I agree with Lora P, my mom feels like she may die before he does.

  9. This is all very sad to read. I have just went through a similar situation however I feel like I failed my mom (84yo) awfully. My step dad and her were always so happy, I’d never believe how he had been treating her in the last years of her life if I didn’t see it myself. I was just dealing with my own personal crisis and ignored it. In her last weeks I stayed with her in hospice at her home and witnessed it all first hand. He was awful to her, she was so depressed… with all of her health problems, knowing what she had been going through, and told me she was going through, me ignoring it… is killing me. She was sick for over 10 years after having a stroke. Her husband took care of her and everyone treated him like a saint… over the years he started mentally abusing her and threatening her. She got to where she couldn’t bathe or take care of herself about 5 years ago. Her health significantly decreased. Parkinson’s, diabetes, dementia etc…she’d just sit there and stare. Her death was sickening. She broke her back from chronic Osteomyelitis and had to be in a nursing home…She was starved into a coma in a nursing home because she couldn’t feed herself and they didn’t feed her. She was there for like 2 1/2 weeks…She was in quarantine for no reason…so I couldn’t go see her. When I did I saw how badly they were doing her. I called ambulance and got her home and on hospice. Where she suffered more abuse from her husband, but I was there with her. Even though she was unresponsive for 3/4 of the time, or barely coherent. I was too late. I couldn’t do anything about her husband because he threatened to put her back in nursing home and she only had days left. I couldn’t even say anything… no good would have came from it. So I would distract him and do what I could. RIP mom. I love you so much and I hope you forgive me. No more suffering for you, thank god. RIP Oct 2nd 2021. Such an amazing, strong, beautiful, inspiring woman.

    1. I’m in tears reading about all of your heartbreaking stories, and sadly I can relate. I too am at a loss of what to do about my elderly parents where my father is emotionally and physically abusive to my mother. The abuse has persisted my entire life. Mom complains about it, but never leaves despite my pleas. And now, being in poor health and fully dependent on my dad, she never will. I know that my dad knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he gets angered and stressed easily and just reacts. Their issues are exhausting and emotionally draining. But I fear that if I can’t somehow get my mom away from this situation, she might end up dead. I live in another state and offered for her to come stay with me. Our family is in a tough spot because we can’t afford the expense of a nursing home but have what’s considered too much money for government assistance. Ideally that would be a way to get her away from the abuse, but unfortunately isn’t an option.

  10. I’m 69 my husband is 77. We met 3 years ago at a public gathering and were inseparable. Four months later we married figuring at our age, why wait? We both had been divorced 18 years and I had lived alone the whole time. He took in his elderly parents 12 yrs ago and they lived with him until his dad died at home. Then Mom died in a nursing home 4 years ago. He always had additional people living in the house for economic reasons or later purportedly to help parents. One month after we got married he began loosing his temper “because I frustrate him so much”. It has escalated into frequent almost daily yelling. He threatens to kick me out, he tore up his will, he spews mean hateful comment about what he percieves as my numerous flaws and shortcomings. He takes vacations without me and when we travel in our RV he without fail has at least one wicked mean meltdown. I think he is suffering mental problems because his rage gets triggered for no apparent reason at times and often for insignificant issues. He appears to loathe me, my thoughts, what I say, how I do things. He micro manages my whole life and he is passive aggressive when not displaying wrath. He locks the door when I go to the mailbox out front. When I’m cooking he puts away a pan or a knife 30 seconds after I take it out to use it, he blows his stack if I trim a bush or kill a weed, or throw away an old holey sock or chipped
    plate without his prior approval. You get the picture. I’ve contacted an attorney, I’ve called the women’s hotline, I’ve only told 2 friends. Their advice is leave. But he controls the finances and is constantly moving money in and out and between our joint, and his “business” accounts held solely in his copany name. I sold an asset I owned for 20 years and opened my own escape fund account, but it is no where close enough to buy a house and if I rent I’ll be broke within just a few years. Yet it’s too much money to qualify for low income housing and my SS leaves me only $600 a month after medical insurance. Grown kids don’t live near and are not privy to my situation. They have never been emotionally supportive about anything in my life and I wouldn’t want to rely on the hope they might help out. Hubby is oh so charming when they do visit, or to a neighbor across the fence, or the people at the bank or a store. But none of my old friends come over bc he sits close-by and listens without interacting. They do seem to sense “something is wrong” without wanting to get involved. He only has two friends that ever call or come over. He acts all congenial and jovial in their presence, yet when they leave he says he doesn’t like them. I have my orders not to invite them to our house. Maybe there are some other seniors (too young for the nursing home, who want to escape and buy a house together where we can live in peace without the terror of a tyrant.

    1. Its not a funny joke Trisha, so lose the humor. You are worried about finances years down, and holding on to your lifestyle, when you should be worried about whether you will make it to the end of the year if you stay.

  11. I can relate. My 91 yr old father has chronic kidney disease, prostate cancer and some cognitive decline. He is frequently in continent. My mother who is 90 is horribly abusive telling him no one wants him, that he should be in no a nursing home, that she Is tired and doesn’t want to take care of him. They both currently are staying with me and my husband. We pay for caregivers for him, take care of all their meals and have a full time housekeeper. This does not stop my mother from treating him horribly. When confronted with her behavior, she cries and is defensive and shifts the blame to us, making us feel guilty. My poor father is caught in the middle and tries to keep the peace by just ignoring her abuse but it is heartbreaking to see my father spend his last days with such a hateful person. Am I just making it worse by calling her out on her behavior?

  12. My step mother is abusing my father. He is frail and recovering from surgery. In his 80’s with multiple health issues. Something in her has snapped. I don’t know if it is a physical or psychological issue. She hates me for things she thinks I have said or done but the things she accuses me of have never happened. It seems as if her reasoning skills are gone. She hears a few words of a sentence and then fills in the missing words with a different narrative. It is completely strange. Because she hates me she is taking out things on him. He is putting up with her abuse in the hopes that she will realize she is getting her way and she will cease the behavior. I fear for his safety and am unsure how to handle this without making things worse for him. We text in code and he will hide in bathroom to call me. He knows he has a place with me anytime day or night and I can be to him within hours. I plan on contacting his doctor but it is her doctor as well. Not sure where the loyalty would be there. Frustrated, afraid and feeling alone in this journey.

  13. I have a friend with MS who is married.
    Her husband has not allowed her out of the house for 2 1/2 years
    They live in a Tru level home.
    He try’s to carry up and down stairs. He has dropped her on several occasions.
    They have the money fo a new home, or a stair lift.
    They are well off. Her parents left her a good deal of money.
    He has not let anyone come into the house except a non English speaking housekeeper. 2 times a month.
    Not sure she is even allowed in now.
    They say they will not allow anyone in because of covid. Her friends have offered to take a test before seeing her.
    The last time Somone was in the house 3 years ago it was absolutely filthy!
    They have 5 cats.
    We called protective services and they went out there 3 years ago. This is when the husband really stopped anyone from entering.
    They convinced them everything was fine.
    The husband is a very good gaslighter.

    She is heavily drugged with antidepressants.
    Evert time anyone asks how she is we all get the same answer. I’m fine.
    She really needs physical therapy to maintain muscle. He refuses to let anyone see her.
    What can we do?
    She does not have any family.
    He leaves her alone at night at least once a week to play in a band. She does not have an emergency call button.

  14. I see many challenging and heartbreaking scenarios here but what are the answers? If one elderly parent is abusing the other and nursing homes or assisted living places are not affordable, what is the answer?

    1. You have the same name as my sister. If agencies can’t or won’t help, and you can’t move the one parent in with you, it seems there is little that can be done to assist in providing a cure all solution. Bandaid options might include:

      You can arrange in the US for IHHS to have a caregiver present if the person cannot complete tasks of daily living (this costs money) and this will stop the abuse from taking place at those times. Another idea is to have neighbors present for care/conversation. You’re basically inserting watch dogs that will hopefully mitigate the abuse during those times by mere presence. You can recommend the abused spouse go on a senior’s trip or senior day trips with a local board and care or senior group depending on mobility. You can recommend that the abused spend time outdoors under the watchful eye of neighbors if they are mobile. Most abusers won’t outburst in front of others unless they have really lost it. You can advise meditation for both, hopefully to calm the raw pain and rage that lives in the abuser, and to give the abused respite. In the case of disability, separating the living situation by moving the disabled spouse to board and care if insurance will cover it is another option.

      My elderly mother is emotionally/mentally/verbally abusing my father; neither are without fault, by way of psychological dysfunction and disorder, selfishness, whatever you want to call it, but one acts out while the other acts stagnant and stoic. This is a dynamic that occurs when you have two people, with one abuser more raw than the other. One chooses larger silent survival, and the more volatile chooses yelling, insults and control. This creates an issue where the only action that can be taken is for each, or just one, individual to choose to live an independent life with the support of financial and public healthcare services, if they are sufficient. If the prior is feasible, a choice must be made by the abused spouse, preferably by the majority abuser, to select a better diverged future for themselves with happiness rather than dwelling in the unpleasantries on their familiar life, and often their history. The individuals involved need to choose life over fight and contact. For example, I attempt to suggest doing a task for their own happiness or a happier future, a hobby, something to look forward to, rather than focus on negative emotions or the burden of knowing the spouse or past events. It’s ignored entirely, but I try. If separation is not feasible or first steps to do so are not taken or even entertained, I don’t think there’s a hope as it’s clear agencies fall flat and short when it comes to elderly spousal abuse. It’s a terrible combination of an aging mind and formerly intertwined lovers, where at least the abusive spouse, if only one is abusive, is now an uninhibited, unfiltered, doesn’t give a f about anyone’s opinion, I’ll do and say what I want, feral version of a toddler with a dose of self perceived authority. In the absence of dementia, elderly people become amplified in their personality, and if they were at all unstable or dysfunctional, they enter that state on steroids with age. No amount of well meaning advice can change that and they can and will make their own decisions to continue on a path of destruction.

      Remind yourself, if you are unable to make the situation better for your parent(s) and agencies fail to adequately assist, that you can only do your best to help and that’s the extent of your capability. You can try, and the ongoing situation will continue to be a source of pain and worry as long as it lasts. Sometimes things are so sticky, there’s no way out, they just exist, and it’s terrible but aside from facilitating a separated move out or the abuser landing in permanent jail, little can be done. As long as the abusive spouse(s) come in contact with each other, there will be abuse unless it’s understood there will be repercussions for their actions and they still care about the quality of the remainder of their life. It would make sense that many abusive elderly do not care any longer. They believe they have few years left and it doesn’t matter if the repercussions take place. They are sadly on a mission to be obsessively unhappy and to spread discontent, to emotionally ransack, self soothe through emoting anger, and extract revenge for their dwindling unsatisfactory life and body they cannot control, as though none of their life nor future ever mattered, because it didn’t and it doesn’t. Only physical separation at all times and a new living situation, or a lot of therapy, can halt that type of force.

  15. Hannah, wow, thank you for sharing that. You described my parents exactly. And I too have come to the conclusion that there is little hope. Especially because neither will/can leave. It really is a despairing situation. Blessings to you.

  16. 2-15-24 Update. Continued from Oct 8, 2020. 15 days later my estranged brother had a stroke, the hospital called our father, father gave the hospital my # they tell me about brother’s condition and he is being released so I take him home. He can’t speak clearly, can’t remember anything and can no longer drive. Took care of my brother that did not want to have contact with our family since 1978. I was a teenager when he left. I understand why he cut ties. Very strange taking care of my brother that is a stranger. A year later Oct 2021 the abusive father fell off a ladder and has a traumatic brain injury on top of the dementia. He can no longer drive, can’t pay bills, can’t make a phone call. Lives in his own little made up fantasy world. Now I’m taking care of both. Brother lived another 2 years. I have inherited 3 elderly cats from him. Abusive daddy still lives in his house, he made peace with 2 of his neighbors that were angry with him for the trapping and killing of the neighborhood wildlife. He thinks he’s still driving and goes to the grocery, bank etc. He hasn’t driven for 2 1/2 yrs, I have done all of it for him. He calls me at least 3 times a week to ask if Mom is staying with me. When I’m at his house he always asks if I have saw my brother. He can’t remember she and their son died. He’ll be 94 soon and he tells me how proud he is of this accomplishment!! His insults, hatefulness and cussing no longer phase me. Never dreamed this is how I would be spending my senior years, running on autopilot waiting for this to end.

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