What is Considered Elder Abuse in California?

California has strong protections for older adults who have experienced abuse at the hands of nursing home staff, medical providers and caregivers. The state recognizes the various forms that abuse may take, including physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse. Through California’s elder abuse laws, victims and their families have several legal pathways to hold perpetrators accountable and recover compensation. 

However, before making a report or considering legal action, it’s important to understand what forms of elder abuse are covered by California laws. 

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is when a caregiver or trusted person harms an older adult or puts them at risk of harm. In California, anyone 65 or older is considered an elder. California’s elder abuse laws also cover dependent adults and persons with disabilities who may be under 65 years old, but are limited in their ability to care for themselves. 

California has several statutes that relate to elder abuse, including the Elder and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act and California Penal Code § 368 PC, which defines California’s elder abuse crimes and associated penalties.

Generally, elder abuse can be divided into six different types.

Emotional/Psychological Abuse: When someone inflicts anguish, pain, or distress on an older adult through verbal or nonverbal acts. This is one of the most common types of elder abuse, with one in three nursing home staff admitting to engaging in psychological abuse in a 2020 World Health Organization study. This can take the form of:

  • Yelling, threatening or swearing at an elder
  • Repeatedly ignoring an elder
  • Preventing an elder from seeing family, friends or other residents
  • Using humiliating or degrading language
  • Putting an older adult’s necessary items, such as glasses or a walker, out of reach
  • Intentionally making an elder wait for food, water or medication
  • Shaming an older adult, especially in front of others

Physical Abuse: When a caregiver intentionally uses force to inflict pain or injury on an elderly person. The result of physical abuse can range from psychological harm and minor cuts and bruises to serious lacerations, broken bones and even death. This type of abuse may include, but is not limited to:

  • Hitting with hands or objects
  • Kicking
  • Slapping
  • Pushing
  • Burning
  • Pulling hair or arms
  • Using unnecessary physical or chemical restraints

Sexual Abuse: When someone engages in any form of sexual contact with an elder without their consent. Seniors with cognitive disabilities due to dementia, stroke or another illness are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, since they are unable to consent and generally cannot report the incident. This type of abuse is not limited to physical interactions and can include:

  • Sharing pornography or sexual material
  • Fondling
  • Forcing an elder to undress
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Sexual harassment
  • Unwelcome advances and requests for sexual favors
  • Taking sexual photos of an older adult

Financial Exploitation: When someone steals money, property or assets from an elder or manipulates them for their own financial gain. This is also sometimes called financial elder abuse or senior fraud. Seniors can be exploited by family members, caregivers, nursing home administrators and even complete strangers who target them through phone and email scams. Financial exploitation of an older adult can look like:

  • Manipulating an elder to gain control of their estate or assets
  • Using a senior’s credit card or cashing their checks without their knowledge
  • Failing to pay a senior’s bills or taxes
  • Scamming an elder 
  • Stealing a senior’s identity
  • Keeping the change when running errands for an elder
  • Double charging for services that are already provided by the nursing home
  • Forging an elder’s signature or forcing them to sign documents

Endangerment and Neglect: When a caregiver fails to provide an elder patient with proper care, including adequate food, water, medical attention, shelter, comfort and other necessities. Although the results of neglect may not be as immediately apparent as other forms of abuse, it is a serious issue that can cause illness, physical harm and death if not addressed. 

Neglect can be further broken down into three categories:

Medical Neglect:

  • Not providing necessary care for existing conditions
  • Not taking timely action on emergent medical issues 
  • Not administering medications at the correct time or in the proper dose
  • Not alerting doctors or nurses when a patient needs attention
  • Not regularly repositioning elders with mobility issues

Neglect of Personal Hygiene and Basic Living Needs:

  • Not bathing an elder properly 
  • Not changing an elder’s clothes consistently
  • Not changing bedding and towels regularly 
  • Leaving an elder in urine or feces for an extended period
  • Not keeping a senior’s living environment clean 
  • Not providing safe, nutritious food in adequate amounts
  • Not providing an elder with enough water or hydration
  • Not keeping the nursing home at a comfortable temperature, or failing to provide seniors with blankets, fans and other items to regulate their temperature

Social and Emotional Neglect:

  • Not helping seniors with mobility issues move throughout the facility
  • Leaving elders in their rooms with no outside contact for extended periods
  • Failing to provide residents with walkers, canes, wheelchairs or other mobility devices
  • Not providing elders with opportunities to socialize

Abandonment: When someone who has legal custody of a senior or is otherwise responsible for their wellbeing intentionally deserts them. This is a less common form of abuse, but it does happen. Examples include:

  • Abandoning a senior in their home
  • Leaving a senior at a shopping center or other public place
  • Dropping off a senior at an emergency room 
  • Abandoning an elder at a friend or family member’s house

Criminal Elder Abuse

In some cases, elder abuse is a crime, and perpetrators can be criminally prosecuted. California Penal Code § 368 PC is the state law that covers physical, emotional and financial elder abuse. Various California assault laws may apply to elder abuse cases as well. These crimes may be charged as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on whether the abuse caused, or could have caused, death or serious bodily harm. 

Someone may be criminally charged for elder abuse if:

  • They knew or should have known the victim was at least 65 years old at the time of the abuse; 
  • They willfully caused unjustified physical pain or mental suffering on the victim or allowed another person to do so; and 
  • The actions in question endangered, or could have endangered, the health or life of the elder. 

People who are convicted of elder abuse in California may face two to four years of incarceration, fines up to $6,000, probation or parole, and court-ordered counseling or community service. 

Civil Lawsuits for Elder Abuse

Although elder abuse is illegal in California, elder abuse cases are rarely criminally prosecuted. Instead, most victims and their families pursue damages through a civil lawsuit, often under California’s Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act. Unlike California’s criminal elder abuse statute, which only applies to certain forms of intentional abuse, the Elder Abuse Act covers virtually all forms of elder abuse, including abuse that was inflicted recklessly. 

Anyone 65 and older is protected by the Elder Abuse Act. Victims and their families may be able to pursue damages against multiple parties involved in abuse, including CNAs, nurses, doctors, nursing home administrators, hospitals, and other people and entities responsible for their care. The Act also establishes requirements for reporting, investigating and prosecuting elder abuse. 

Before filing a civil elder abuse claim, victims and their loved ones may be required to report the abuse to the appropriate channels. For example, physical abuse should first be reported to law enforcement and the local nursing home ombudsman.

Few people realize all the ways that vulnerable seniors can be taken advantage of, but when you recognize the different forms of elder abuse, it becomes easier to spot. If you think your loved one is facing abuse in one of these categories, an elder abuse lawyer can help you determine the best way to file a report or legal claim.

Contact a Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer

An experienced nursing home abuse lawyer can provide a wealth of resources to help you protect your loved one and determine whether to file a nursing home abuse lawsuit. Since 1993, Garcia & Artigliere have been protecting our most vulnerable by being leaders in elder and nursing home abuse litigation. Garcia & Artigliere have obtained more than $3 billion in results for its clients. Contact us today for more information at 800-281-8515.