Skip to main content
senior woman with younger woman caring for house plant

When an Older Adult Isn’t Taking Care of Himself or Herself

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Martie Gillen, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Many of us are aware of the sad problem of elder abuse or neglect, which occurs when a family member or caregiver abuses an elder or fails to care for him or her adequately.  However, we may be less tuned in to the issue of elder self-neglect, which is actually more common.

What is Self-Neglect?

Self-neglect occurs when an older person stops taking care of him or herself and his or her home such that physical health and safety are at risk. Warning signs include a lack of necessities, such as fresh food and functioning utilities; extremely dirty living conditions or signs of hoarding; very poor personal hygiene; and inability or refusal to take medications or manage chronic health conditions.

The Risks are Real

Elder self-neglect may be especially likely in older people who are isolated or depressed, or those who have issues with cognitive functioning or problems with drugs or alcohol. However, high-functioning elders definitely aren’t immune. In a 2009 study of more than 9000 older adults, those reported to social services for suspected self-neglect were at much higher risk of death in the year following the report. Even elders with good physical and cognitive skills ran this risk, as did those whose self-neglect was only mild.

If you feel concerned about self-neglect in an older adult you know, don’t hesitate; reach out. Take steps to help him or her reduce isolation and get needed services. Your assistance can be part of the solution, but it’s also a great idea to contact community-based groups that provide support for elders, your local Area Agency on Aging, or Adult Protective Services. Getting help early on is key to turning this potentially serious situation around.

(Photo credit: Another black and with photo with an old man in a window by Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

What’s Happening to My Mother?–from the AARP

NCALL–National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life


Dong, X., et al. (2009). Elder self-neglect and abuse and mortality risk in a community-dwelling population. Journal of the American Medical Association, 302(5), 517-526.

Levine, C. (2012). What’s happened to my mother? Retrieved from

Washington State Department of Health and Social Services. (2013). Self neglect. Retrieved from

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). Elder self-neglect. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)