Elder Abuse Crimes and Penalties

Many states have enacted special laws or harsher penalties for crimes committed against elderly victims.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated February 13, 2023

The abuse of the elderly runs the gamut from financial scams and physical neglect to serious assaults and sexual abuse. Both criminal and civil laws aim to protect elderly adults from abuse. This article will discuss common crimes committed against the elderly and their penalties. To learn more about civil remedies, check out Nolo's Elder Law page.

The Elder Abuse Problem

Laws typically define elder abuse to include physical and emotional abuse, financial exploitation, sexual abuse, and neglect of people age 60 or older. It's estimated that at least 1 in 10 elderly adults suffer from abuse every year, but far fewer are reported and prosecuted. The National Center on Elder Abuse provides resources and compiles statistics on this growing population and the increasing prevalence of elder abuse.

Is Elder Abuse a Crime?

Yes, in many cases, elder abuse is a crime and can result in criminal charges.

State laws differ in their approach to elder abuse crimes. Some states have enacted statutes that specifically address and allow enhanced penalties for crimes against elderly individuals, such as elder abuse or neglect. Others might prosecute crimes under their general statutes against assault, financial exploitation, fraud, or theft (among other crimes), and either provide a statutory enhancement (increased penalty) or allow judges to consider a victim's advanced age as an aggravating factor in sentencing decisions. In many states, lawmakers use a variety of these approaches. Here are a few examples.

Crimes specific to elderly victims. The California Penal Code makes it a crime to willfully inflict pain or mental suffering on an elder or dependent adult under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm. (Cal. Penal Code § 368 (2022).)

Statutory enhancement for elderly victims. In Minnesota, simple assault carries a misdemeanor penalty, but when committed against a member of a protected class (such as the elderly), the penalty increases to a gross misdemeanor. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.2231, 609.224 (2022).)

Aggravating factor in sentencing. Kansas law allows judges to sentence a convicted offender above the presumptive (recommended) sentence if certain aggravating factors exist, including that "the victim was particularly vulnerable due to age." So, if the offender scams an elderly victim out of their retirement, the court could look at the victim's age when imposing a sentence for theft or fraud. (Kan. Stat. § 21-6815 (2022).)

What Are Common Criminal Charges for Elder Abuse?

While any crime can be committed against an elderly person, below are some of the most common crimes targeted at elderly victims.

Elder Abuse

Abuse refers to the intentional infliction of physical pain, injury, mental or emotional distress, fear, intimidation, unreasonable confinement, or sexual abuse against an elderly or vulnerable individual.

Elder Neglect

Criminal neglect can be committed by a caregiver responsible for the care and supervision of the elderly adult, regardless of whether the caregiver is a paid professional or unpaid family member. Neglect can involve intentional:

  • failure to provide an elderly person with necessary provisions, such as food, water, clothing, and shelter
  • failure to provide or seek medical care for an elderly adult's physical or mental health needs, or
  • acts or omissions that place an elderly adult at risk of harm.

Abandonment or confinement may fit in this category as well.

Elder Abuse or Neglect in Nursing Homes

Some states have separate crimes that apply to elder abuse or neglect committed against a nursing home resident by anyone working or volunteering in the facility.

Assault of an Elderly or Vulnerable Victim

A person commits assault by intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm on another or by placing another in fear of immediate bodily harm. Someone who assaults an older victim can face increasing penalties based on the level of harm done.

Sexual Assault of an Elderly or Vulnerable Adult

Sexual assault or abuse occurs when a perpetrator engages in sexual contact without a person's consent or ability to give consent. Elderly adults who rely on caregivers who come into their homes, hospital or nursing home rooms, or assisted living apartments can be targets for sexual assault crimes.

Financial Exploitation of an Elderly Victim

Financial exploitation of elderly victims is a common offense, especially when an elderly person entrusts a family member or advisor to manage their finances and pay their bills. This arrangement allows that person easy access to exploit their position of trust and improperly convert the elderly victim's assets to their own use. In other cases, the person might pressure, harass, or coerce the elderly victim into making certain decisions that are detrimental.

Elder Fraud

Fraud can take many forms including false representations, deceit, swindling, and schemes that are intended to wrongfully take or use another's money, property, assets, or funds. Common fraud scams targeted at elderly victims include tech support scams, sweepstakes or lottery scams, charitable scams, mortgage scams, and government impersonation scams.

Theft or Robbery of Elderly Victims

Elderly victims can also be targets for theft and robbery crimes. A person commits theft by taking another's property or money without consent, through false representations, or by misappropriating it for their own use. Robbery typically involves theft directly from a person using force or threats of harm.

What Are the Penalties for Elder Abuse Crimes?

The penalties for elder abuse and related crimes will depend on several factors, such as the severity of the crime, any harm done to the victim, and the defendant's prior criminal history. Each state defines its crimes and penalties differently.

Is Elder Abuse a Felony?

It can be. Crimes committed against an elderly victim are likely to be felonies when any of the following factors apply:

  • the offense causes serious physical harm to a victim (such as broken bones or wounds)
  • the offense involved a sexual assault
  • the defendant stole, embezzled, or exploited the elderly victim out of hundreds or thousands of dollars
  • the defendant held a position of trust over the victim (such as a financial advisor or power of attorney)
  • the defendant was a caretaker for the elderly adult, or
  • the defendant has a lengthy criminal record.

What Are the Penalties for Elder Abuse Crimes?

Judges and juries don't look too kindly at crimes against vulnerable victims. A defendant convicted of a misdemeanor or felony for any elder abuse crime will likely see some time behind bars.

Most misdemeanors carry jail time of up to a year (sometimes longer), whereas a defendant convicted of a felony faces prison time of a year or more. Felony convictions for assault, sexual assault, robbery, and other violent crimes against an elderly person could result in maximum penalties of 10 or more years in prison. The penalties for property crimes, such as theft and financial exploitation, will usually depend on the amount of property involved. The greater the loss is, the stiffer the penalty will be. For crimes resulting in financial harm to the victim, the court will typically order the defendant to pay restitution (compensation to the victim).

In addition to immediate penalties, a criminal record for an offense targeting the elderly could make it much harder to find a job in the future. A defendant might be forced to give up a professional license or not be allowed to work in positions that involve frequent interactions with the elderly, such as health care and finance.

What to Do If You Suspect Elder Abuse

Crimes against elderly adults can be committed by anyone—caregivers, family, neighbors, healthcare workers, acquaintances, or strangers. Many states have programs and agencies designed to detect, investigate, and address elder abuse. If the elderly person is in immediate, life-threatening danger, call 911.

State Adult Protective Services

Many counties have adult protective services. Contacting a local adult protective services agency can be a good place to start if you suspect elder abuse. You can relay your concerns to a professional, who can investigate the situation to find out more and get the elderly victim help if needed.

To find your state's agency, try searching for "adult protective services in [your state's name]." You can also check out the National Center on Elder Abuse directory of state agencies and reporting numbers. Another great resource is the Eldercare Locator found online or call (800) 677-1116. To learn the warning signs of elder abuse, check out this information provided by the National Council on Aging.

Nursing Home Abuse and Federal Law

For elderly adults in nursing homes, federal law gives nursing home residents a "bill of rights." These rights, set out in the Nursing Home Reform Act, cover safety, health, medical care, privacy, and freedom to make personal decisions. (42 U.S.C. § 1396g.)

A nursing home resident has a right to be free from physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. Every state must designate an ombudsman to receive and address complaints about nursing home issues. You can find contact information for long-term care ombudsman program by state on this website, as well as additional long-term care resources.

Getting Help

For those facing criminal charges, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area. An attorney can help explain the charges, the criminal justice process, and the possible consequences.

If you suspect elder abuse, contact a local Adult Protective Services office. In life-threatening cases, call 911.

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