Physical Abuse in Nursing Homes

elder hand broken

In a 2020 study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately two out of three nursing home employees admitted to abusing residents in the past year. It’s estimated that as many as five million elders are abused in nursing homes each year, with the vast majority of these instances going unreported to law enforcement officials.

These statistics are shocking and alarming for those with aging family members who need the constant care provided by a nursing home. This problem is all too common, and family members are often unsure of how to address their suspicions or what to do when a loved one reports that they have been abused in a nursing home facility.

Fortunately, elders and their families do not have to suffer in silence. Although they may find the situation difficult to discuss for fear of embarrassment, shame, or fear of retaliation, abuse should always be reported immediately to ensure the safety of your loved one and the other patients within the facility.

Learn more about physical abuse in nursing homes to determine whether abuse is occurring and what you can do about it.

What constitutes nursing home physical abuse?

While many hear the term “physical abuse” and instantly envision actions like hitting or kicking, acts of abuse on elders aren’t always this blatant (though many times they are).

Physical abuse of the elderly is defined as any intentional act or act of omission that presents a risk of bodily harm or injury to the elderly individual. This means that violent acts such as shoving, hitting, kicking, slapping, pinching, or hair-pulling are forms of physical abuse, but other situations constitute physical abuse as well.

Some of the most prevalent forms of elder abuse in nursing homes include using restraints, confining the elderly person to their room or bed, and administering inappropriate medications.

For example, an elderly person may be handcuffed or otherwise secured to their bed, or staff may give them sleeping pills that are not needed to increase the amount of time the elderly person sleeps during the day.

A nurse in a nursing home physically abusing an elderly woman sitting on a bed.

Signs of Physical Abuse in Nursing Homes

As prevalent as physical abuse in nursing homes is, the signs aren’t always immediately obvious to loved ones. Likewise, the elderly person may be too afraid or ashamed to speak up.

If you suspect a loved one is being abused, look for the following signs of physical abuse in nursing homes:

  • Bruises, abrasions, welts, lacerations, or rope marks
  • Head trauma or bone fractures
  • Open wounds, cuts, punctures, or untreated injuries in various stages of healing
  • Sprains, dislocations, and internal injuries or bleeding
  • Bite, strangulation, or burn marks or other patterns of injury
  • Signs of falls, including broken eyeglasses or frames
  • Physical indications of punishment, such as evidence of physical restraints
  • Medication overdose or chemical restraints
  • Sudden behavioral changes

While these are the most common signs of physical abuse, they’re not the only ones that may occur. If you suspect abuse but do not see any of these signs, take caution and express your concerns regardless. There are many forms of abuse, and not all of them will leave visible evidence.

Impact of Nursing Home Physical Abuse on the Elderly

The impact of nursing home physical abuse on the elderly extends far beyond the pain that they experience. The overall effects of the abuse will vary based on factors such as the type of abuse suffered and the degree of abuse they experienced.

Like all forms of abuse, each elderly person may respond to abuse differently. Despite this, the risk of severe consequences is high and may come in the form of psychosocial consequences, physical trauma, increased hospitalization and mortality rates, depression, anxiety, and a decline in cognitive functioning.

Who perpetrates physical abuse in nursing homes?

Within nursing homes, residents are faced with two potential types of abusers: staff members and other residents.

Icon of a nurse

Staff Members

Staff members are the most likely suspects when physical abuse of an elderly person is suspected. This is because they are typically in contact with the residents most frequently and are often alone with them, where abuse can occur without witnesses.

Studies show that more than 64% of nursing home staff members admit to committing abuse or neglecting residents in some form. When abuse cases are reported to police, the perpetrator is usually a staff member, although it is unknown how many of these instances may go unreported.

According to staff members, the leading factor in this abuse from staff is being understaffed or undertrained. Because they do not have the tools to provide proper care and handle each situation with patience, they often become frustrated and turn to physical abuse to release their frustrations and force the resident into compliance. Nursing homes are responsible for ensuring that they have sufficient staff and that those staff members have sufficient training, to provide good care to residents to reduce and eliminate injuries in the nursing home.

Signs of physical abuse

Other Nursing Home Residents

Other perpetrators in nursing home abuse cases are the residents themselves. Residents may have disagreements, or certain residents may have difficulties constructively expressing themselves. This can lead to physical attacks, sexual assaults, and verbal abuse.

In these instances, it is crucial for nursing home staff to intervene to keep the residents safe. These situations can cause just as much physical, mental, and emotional damage as when abuse occurs at the hands of staff members. Nursing homes are responsible for protecting their residents from foreseeable harm and must take action in cases where one resident is abusing another, in order to stop the abuse.

What do I do if I suspect nursing home physical abuse?

If you are a family member of a resident suffering from possible physical abuse, you must take action to ensure that your loved one remains safe.

Regardless of which type of abuse you suspect is taking place, no form of abuse is acceptable, and there are resources available to help you and your loved one. Elders deserve a safe and comfortable living environment where they are free to enjoy their lives without fear of physical abuse.

If you need help, consider the following suggestions to get your loved one out of harm’s way:

  • File a report directly with the nursing facility about the staff member or other resident in question
  • Seek medical attention for any injuries that the elderly person has suffered as a result of the abuse at a hospital or facility
  • Contact the police and file a police report
  • Reach out to Adult Protective Services and express your concerns about the nursing home facility
  • Contact your state’s office of the Administration on Aging, which administers the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
  • Contact a lawyer
  • Seek other resources that may be needed to help your loved one through the healing process, such as mental health professionals

If you suspect your loved one is experiencing nursing home physical abuse, or you have suffered physical injuries or other trauma due to nursing home physical abuse, contact us for a free case evaluation.

Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia Shelton, MD

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  • University of Washington, Doctor of Medicine – MD. June 2008
  • University of Washington, Bachelor of Science – BS, Jun 2003


Neuroscience and Medicine


  • Dr. Shelton primarily writes content for health-related websites, but has also written test prep materials, white papers, published research articles, court documents, and more.
  • Dr. Shelton teaches anatomy and physiology at the college level for the National Institutes of Health.

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Nursing Home Abuse Should Have Consequences.

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Our fact-checking process begins with a thorough review of all sources to ensure they are high quality. Then we cross-check the facts with original medical or scientific reports published by those sources, or we validate the facts with reputable news organizations, medical and scientific experts and other health experts. Each page includes all sources for full transparency.
Our fact-checking process begins with a thorough review of all sources to ensure they are high quality. Then we cross-check the facts with original medical or scientific reports published by those sources, or we validate the facts with reputable news organizations, medical and scientific experts and other health experts. Each page includes all sources for full transparency.