Exposing the hidden issue of elder abuse

20 reports on abuse of elderly persons are filed monthly in Malta.

Here’s a potential and sadly common situation: an elderly woman is taken care of by her son, who asks if he can take a gold necklace of a certain value. The elderly woman has little choice but to accept. Although no crime has been committed, one may question if this is abuse. Another common case would involve a professional who charges €50 instead of the usual €20 from an elderly man, who has no choice but to comply.

These real cases highlight the importance of raising awareness about elder abuse, especially as we commemorated World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on 15th June. This day aims to increase awareness and understanding of this issue across society.

The Social Workers section within Active Ageing and Community Care receives around 20 cases a month related to abuse, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as negligence, the Parliamentary Secretary for Active Ageing within the Ministry of Health, Malcolm Paul Agius Galea, said.

Abuse and crime: the difference

Professor Marvin Formosa, Chairperson of the National Commission for Active Ageing, explained that it’s crucial to distinguish between abuse and crime. Abuse refers to actions or behaviour that are harmful, cruel, or bad to another person, and although it may not breach the law, it is still morally and ethically wrong. A crime, however, infringes criminal law and is punishable by legal penalties. Not every instance of abuse is a crime, but every crime involving abuse is legally punishable.

“Abuse is rarely reported, and when it occurs within families, it is often dealt with internally,” Prof. Formosa stated. Vulnerable elderly individuals, such as those with disabilities, dementia, or those living alone or in residences, are at higher risk of abuse. Raising awareness and encouraging reporting is crucial.

Parliamentary Secretary Malcolm Paul Agius Galea emphasised that, as the global population ages, the prevalence of elder abuse is expected to increase, making it vital to address this issue promptly and effectively.


Elder abuse has severe psychological consequences for victims, making recovery difficult. Some victims never fully recover emotionally from the trauma, leading to insecurity, illness, anxiety, or depression. Abuse can result in high dependency on daily activities, increased emergency services use, higher death rates, and self-destructive behaviour, including suicide.

Socially, abuse leads to increased healthcare costs, case investigations, and training of employees, as well as indirect costs related to the loss of social capital and the valuable contributions of individuals to society.

Types of abuse

Elderly individuals can experience various types of abuse, each with distinct characteristics and impacts:

  • Physical abuse: Causing physical pain or injury, such as blows or inappropriate restraints.
  • Emotional/psychological abuse: Causing emotional pain or distress through abusive language, threats, or isolation.
  • Sexual abuse: Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind, including unwanted touch or kissing.
  • Financial abuse/exploitation: Illegal or improper use of an elderly person’s money, property, or assets, often by someone in a position of trust.
  • Neglect/abandonment: Lack of necessary treatment, leading to harm or distress, including not providing adequate food, medical care, or personal hygiene assistance.
  • Discrimination: Based on age, racism, sexism, or disability.

Identifying elder abuse

Identifying elder abuse is challenging, as victims may be reluctant or unable to report their experiences. Signs of abuse include physical bruises or injuries, behavioural changes, financial changes, and lack of hygiene or untreated medical conditions.

Prof. Formosa noted that physical abuse has decreased due to increased awareness, but abandonment has become more prevalent. While not a crime, failure to visit dependent elderly relatives leaves them without essential emotional support.

Preventing elder abuse

Elderly individuals can prevent abuse by maintaining their health and independence through physical exercise, regular medical check-ups, and staying socially active. Social isolation increases vulnerability to abuse. Participating in lifelong learning, social groups, and volunteering can help.

Active Ageing centres offer opportunities for social interaction, learning, and physical activity across 32 localities in Malta. It is also important for elderly individuals to manage their finances carefully, avoiding giving out bank card PINs and monitoring account transactions.

Support and information

Information is key to avoiding abuse. There are various sources of information, including online resources, seminars, and workshops on elder abuse. Active Ageing and Community Care organises information sessions on financial literacy, counterfeits, digital skills, and more.

What to do if victimised

Victims of abuse should speak out. Active Ageing and Community Care social workers can provide guidance and support, including legal and psychological assistance. Agreements with the Victim Support Agency and Legal Aid Malta ensure comprehensive support for elderly abuse victims.

Need for a dedicated office

Significant progress has been made, such as establishing minimum standards for old people’s homes in 2015. However, Prof. Formosa stressed the need for a dedicated office focused on investigating elder abuse, which would require a dedicated team and resources.

If you need help or advice on this subject, call active Ageing and Community care on 22788900, and ask for social workers.

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