The Creeping Danger of Self-Neglect

The Creeping Danger of Self-Neglect

time icon 5 min read update icon Nov. 26, 2019


In a study of almost 10,000 seniors, it was found that self-neglect cases which resulted in premature deaths were on the rise. Senior self-neglect is more prevalent than most people realize. In fact, some studies cite self-neglect as being the most common form of elder abuse.


Self-neglect comes in many variations. It can range from seniors not taking their medications to failing to clean their homes. Others may stop bathing and grooming, while some seniors may not eat or drink. Studies have shown that seniors who have a lacking social network are more prone to falling into the ruts of self-neglect. In some instances, medical conditions such as dementia or depression may be associated with self-neglect. In other cases, self-neglect may be triggered by isolation and poverty.

Senior self-neglect is common, yet it often goes unrecognized. With the rapidly increasing senior population in this country, issues associated with senior self-neglect will likely become more pervasive, affecting many in our communities.

Recognizing and Preventing Self-Neglect in Seniors

1. Signs of Self-Neglect in Seniors

The most common signs of self-neglect include not bathing or grooming. The senior may have dirty or disheveled clothing or may be wearing clothing that isn't suitable for the weather. If a senior consistently fail to take medications or is refusing to go to a doctor or dentist, these can also be signs of self-neglect. Overrun garbage in the home and rotting food in the refrigerator are telltale signs of self-neglect, as the senior is no longer maintaining a sanitary home.

In some instances, the senior risks living in unsafe living conditions, such as going without heat. Hoarding of papers, typically newspapers, as well as animals or clothing, can also be signs of self-neglect. In such cases, speak to the senior’s physical immediately, so that the senior, and any affected animals, can receive proper care as soon as possible.

2. Potential Causes of Self-Neglect

More than half of the cases of senior abuse reported to authorities are due to self-neglect and do not involve others at all. Some of the more common reasons seniors may experience self-neglect include:

Isolation: Studies have shown that seniors who do not take care of themselves may become socially isolated, and may have been socially isolated prior to the self-neglect. As life satisfaction declines, the risk of self-neglect in seniors increases. Senior day services or other social opportunities for meeting others may prove to be helpful.

Medications: Some medications that seniors take can cause mental confusion. Other drugs may cause dizziness and fatigue. Medications should never be stopped without checking with a doctor first, as suddenly stopping medications may lead to other medical problems. However, if a medication is leading to unwanted side effects, a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible.

Depression: Some seniors may be depressed without realizing it. As seniors advance in age, they may lose their social support system due to the death of a spouse, siblings, or friends. Changes in a senior’s circumstances may cause doctors and family members to overlook the signs of depression. As a result, there is often a delay in effective treatment, forcing many seniors to struggle silently with depression. When depression is left untreated, it can result in social withdrawal, physical exhaustion, and loss of interest in self-care.

Cognitive impairments: Seniors with cognitive impairments may not realize their inability to safely perform routine activities such as cleaning, bathing and cooking. This may lead to self-neglect. Screening tests are available to help seniors and doctors identify whether dementia or another cognitive deficit may be an underlying factor of the self-neglect.

Drug or alcohol abuse: Some seniors are able to successfully hide their addictions until the side effects become too evident to ignore. Drug and alcohol abuse usually results in the senior repeatedly neglecting their responsibilities at home.

3. Getting Help

Early detection of self-neglect is important. An experienced professional, such as a nurse, doctor or therapist, can help to identify the signs. If action isn't taken early, the senior’s health and well-being may be at risk of unavoidable consequences, such as illness, death or, being placed in a long-term care facility. If the senior is resistant to help, the local Adult Protective Services office should be contacted for further guidance. 


Self-neglect is one of the most frequently reported concerns of abuse to seniors. Oftentimes, self-neglect may be a result of isolation, declining health, dementia, or drug and alcohol dependency. In some cases, seniors will be receptive to receiving help, and will be connected with support groups in the community which will assist them in continuing to live on their own. Some medical conditions, such as malnutrition, dehydration and depression, may be successfully treated through medical intervention.

If the self-neglect issue is severe and not immediately treatable, Adult Protective Services, law enforcement, or a long-term care ombudsman should be contacted, so that the matter can be further discussed. Once senior self-neglect is reported to the authorities, the reporter is not required to prove that self-neglect is occurring; It is the responsibility of the professionals to investigate the suspicions to determine if self-neglect is present.

T. Mashae Pearson - Senior Advisor

Shae is senior researcher with Grandfolk® providing in-depth product and service reviews to empower senior buying decisions.