Adult abuse and safeguarding

What is adult abuse?

Adult abuse happens when a person’s rights, independence or dignity are not respected. This can be deliberate, or it can be caused by a lack of knowledge, or omission of care. However, all circumstances of not respecting a person’s rights are abusive.

Abuse can affect any adult at any stage of life and any person is at risk. It is more likely to happen when people are more vulnerable – for example people living with, a physical or intellectual disability, an acquired brain injury, a mental health condition, or in situations of coercive control or frailty due to age. A vulnerable person is someone who is not able to protect themselves from harm or exploitation, or their ability to report instances of harm or exploitation may be limited.

Abuse can be perpetrated (carried out) by a range of people, such as strangers, institutions, or family members. It may happen when an older person or a person with a disability lives alone or with a relative. It may also happen in residential or day-care settings, in hospitals, home support services and other places assumed to be safe.

Elder abuse is the abuse of someone aged 65 or over and it happens in a relationship where there is an expectation of trust. For information on recognising the signs of child abuse, and the protection of vulnerable children, see our page Child abuse and child protection.

Types of abuse

Types of adult abuse
Types of abuse Description
Psychological abuse Emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, coercion, harassment, verbal abuse, isolation or withdrawal from services or supportive networks
Physical abuse Slapping, pushing, hitting, kicking, misuse of medication, inappropriate restraint (including physical and chemical restraint) or sanctions
Financial or material abuse Theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property or inheritance, or financial transactions, or the misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits
Neglect Self-neglect and acts of omission including ignoring medical or physical care needs, the withholding of the necessities of life, such as medication, adequate nutrition and heating
Discriminatory abuse Ageism, racism, sexism, abuse based on a person’s disability, and other forms of harassment, slurs or similar treatment
Institutional abuse Poor standards of care, rigid routines, inadequate responses to complex needs occurring in residential care, nursing homes, acute hospitals, and in-patient settings
Sexual abuse Rape and sexual assault or sexual acts to which the older adult has not consented, or could not consent, or into which they were forced to consent

Common signs of abuse

Common signs of abuse, neglect or coercion are:


  • Unexplained bruises, marks, or injuries
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Dirty, or unsafe living conditions
  • Anxiety


  • Inexplicable shortage of money
  • Suspicious addition of names to financial accounts
  • Unexpected changes to will or Power of Attorney


  • Poor hygiene
  • Development of bedsores
  • Hunger

Reporting a concern

If you suspect someone you know may be a victim of abuse, or if you are a victim of abuse yourself, you should contact your local health centre, your GP, public health nurse or the Garda Síochana.

Alternatively, call the HSE’s National Safeguarding Office at (061) 461 358. The HSE has Safeguarding and Protection Teams in place in every region of the country.

You can also contact the HSE Information Line on 1800 700 700. If confidentiality is required, phone the Garda confidential line on 1800 666 111.

In an emergency, where a person is at immediate risk, you should contact the Garda Síochana or Emergency Services on 999 or 112.

If you have concerns about financial abuse of your social welfare payment, or the social welfare payment of someone you know, contact Safeguarding Unit, Department of Social Protection, College Road, Sligo, F91 T384, email:, or call 071 919 3259.

Safeguarding your future

Safeguarding risks arise if an adult is prevented from making their own decisions. Every person is presumed to have the right to make their own decisions unless deemed not to have capacity, which requires certification by a healthcare professional.

Safeguarding your future means planning to help reduce the risk of abuse. You can:

Choose who can assist you with making decisions

The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 is a new law that supports the rights of people to make their own decisions. Decision support arrangements are legally recognised arrangements for people who need support to make certain decisions. There are 3 types of support arrangements for people who currently, or may shortly, face challenges when making certain decisions:

The Decision Support Service has published an easy-to-read guide on the Assisted Decision-Making Capacity Act 2015 (pdf) and My Choices: Getting support to make decisions (pdf).

Make an Enduring Power of Attorney 

Make and register an Enduring Power of Attorney. This is a legal arrangement that gives authority to a person you know and trust, to act on your behalf if you lose the capacity to make certain decisions in the future. These decisions can be about your personal welfare and property and money matters. For more information, Safeguarding Ireland has a leaflet that explains how an Enduring Power of Attorney can safeguard your finances, property and welfare (pdf).

Choose a Health Representative 

Make an Advance Healthcare Directive. This arrangement lets you set out your wishes about healthcare and medical treatment decisions in case you are unable to make these decisions at some time in the future. You can appoint someone you know and trust as your designated healthcare representative to ensure your advance healthcare directive is followed. For more information, the Decision Support Service has published Your guide to an Advance Healthcare Directive (pdf).

Further information

Decision Support Service

Waterloo Exchange,
Waterloo Road, Dublin 4
Eircode: D04 E5W7
Republic of Ireland

Tel: 01 2119750

Department of Social Protection (Safeguarding Unit)

College Road
F91 T384

Tel: 071 919 3259
Page edited: 8 November 2023