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Older Adult Abandonment

Elder abandonment, sometimes called "older adult abandonment" or "senior abandonment," is a form of older adult abuse. It occurs when a person has assumed responsibility for providing care to an elderly individual -- but then deserts that individual. There are variations in how states define elder abandonment, but the general principles are the same.

Background on Elder Abandonment

Older adult abandonment is generally defined as the purposeful and permanent desertion of a person over age 65. The victim may be left at a hospital, a nursing home, or in a public location. Perhaps the abandoning person feels overburdened or believes he or she lacks the resources to care for the victim. Whatever the reason, one can only imagine the confusion and despair that the victim feels.

Statistics for older adult abandonment are hard to come by because many incidents go unreported and because abandonment is sometimes used interchangeably with elder neglect, which is the failure or refusal to fulfill one's duties or obligations to an older adult.

Older Adult Abandonment vs. Older Adult Neglect

Neglect is also a form of mistreatment and older adult abuse. Neglect occurs when assigned caregivers, whether professionals or family members, fail to meet the needs of the older adult. It is common to see withholding of basic needs such as:

  • Medication

  • Food

  • Social contact

  • Personal hygiene

  • Health care

Any neglect puts an older adult in serious danger over days or weeks. Neglect can be intentional or unintentional. You may also hear it called “passive neglect.” Unintentional neglect typically occurs when the caregiver is unaware or in denial that an older person needs as much care as they do.

Neglect requires the caregiver to still be around the victim. They might still fulfill some of their responsibilities, so neglect can be hard to recognize. Abandonment is a total lack of contact with the victim and complete failure to fulfill any responsibilities.

In some laws, states may use "abandonment" and "neglect" interchangeably.

Elder Abandonment: State Law Basics

Every state has some form of older adult abandonment law. There are variations in language and applicability.

California, for example, defines elder abandonment as the purposeful desertion of an older adult by someone caring for that person. In California, any person who has care or custody of any elderly person is subject to this provision.

On the other hand, Delaware's abandonment law falls under "neglect" and is defined as the purposeful abandonment of an impaired adult. Note that Delaware law applies only to physically or mentally impaired older adults, while California's law applies to any elderly person.

Like Delaware, New York's abandonment law is deemed "neglect." However, New York law contains two categories of neglect: "active" and "passive." The difference depends on whether the neglect was willful. Both of these neglect categories concern the failure of someone providing care to an older adult to fulfill those caretaking duties.

Older Adult Abandonment: Federal Laws

On top of each state's laws, the federal government has also enacted laws to protect older adults from abandonment. The federal Elder Justice Act requires certain individuals at long-term care facilities to report crimes committed against elderly residents.

To prevent cases of abuse and abandonment, it's important for older adults and those caring for them to know about their rights and responsibilities.

Wandering vs. Abandonment

Older adults facing dementia or other memory impairments can get lost or wander away from their homes. Wandering can be an accident unrelated to elder abuse or a crime. However, wandering can also be triggered by abuse, neglect, and unmet needs.

How You Can Help: Spotting Elder Abandonment

An older adult who is alone and appears confused, lost, or frightened may be the victim of abandonment. Other signs of abandonment or neglect include the elderly person looking frail, appearing lonely or depressed, being malnourished or dehydrated, and having poor hygiene.

Understandably, a person looking for help may worry that they are imposing or being rude by approaching a possible victim. If that is the case, calling a police officer, a park ranger, or a social worker would be a good option.

If your loved one goes missing and you suspect a caretaker has abandoned them, call the police immediately. Then report it to your state's Adult Protective Services to investigate. 

Getting Help

Contact your local elder abuse agency if you or someone you know may be the victim of older adult abandonment.

If you provide care to an older adult and want to know more about your state's abandonment laws, you should consult with a lawyer specializing in elder law.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified elder abuse attorney to help you and loved ones recognize and fight elder abuse.

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