Sons five times more likely to abuse elderly parents, study finds

Mothers more likely to be victims, in family court cases including violence and threats

Sons are five times more likely to abuse an elderly parent compared to daughters, according to unpublished research into elder abuse cases in the Family Court.

Mothers are also far more likely to become victims of elder abuse compared to fathers. Verbal abuse and threats are the most common forms of abuse seen in the courts including many instances of threats with knives, according to DCU Assistant Professor of Law Dr Adam McAuley, who carried out the study.

Over the course of a year Dr McAuley visited every District Court family law sitting in the country bar one, including spending eight months in Dolphin House, the country’s busiest domestic violence court.

He recorded 61 cases of parents requesting the court’s protection from their adult children. Parents requested safety orders, effectively warnings to abusers to obey the law, and barring orders which prevent abusers entering a property or approaching the victim.


It is the first time such research has been carried out in an Irish context. Dr McAuley found just 5 per cent of parents had legal representation when applying for a protection order.

However, the vast majority of the applications for protection are successful. In the cases studied by Dr McAuley, the judge refused to grant some form of protection on just three occasions.

There were 44 cases (72 per cent) involving mothers applying for protection from adult sons or daughters and 10 (16 per cent) involving fathers. In seven cases (12 per cent) the application came from both the mother and father.

Fifty one of the cases (84 per cent) concerned sons who were allegedly abusive towards one or both of their parents compared to 10 cases (16 per cent) involving a daughter.


Dr McAuley said the age of abuse victims ranged from a mother in her late 30s with adult children, up to a woman in her late 80s.

In many cases the victim was caring for the abuser’s child – their grandchild – at the time of the abuse. Nearly a fifth of the cases involved a young child in some way.

Verbal abuse was the most common form of maltreatment and was present in 67 per cent of cases. This is followed by threats, including threats with knives, which were present in 59 per cent of cases.

Thirty eight per cent involved property damage and 36 per cent involved physical violence, including self-harm committed by the adult child. In 15 per cent of cases there were demands for money, including demanding money for drugs, Dr McAuley said.

“There were also a couple of really nasty ones involving false imprisonment,” he said. “There were a lot of correlations between drug issues and demands for money.”

In 38 per cent of cases, drugs were a factor in some way. Alcohol was a factor in 18 per cent and mental health issues and homelessness were a factor in 11 and eight per cent respectively.

“Of all the applications I have seen, [elder abuse applications] are the saddest ones because no parent really wants to make an application against their child. But the reality is many are forced into it,” Dr McAuley said.

He said he noted during his research there were significant problems around the serving of barring or safety orders to abusers.

It can often be difficult to serve an order if gardaí do not know where the applicant lives, Dr McAuley said, for example if they are homeless. If a person does not receive an order, they cannot be prosecuted for breaching it.

Some family court clerks have started recommending victims to take a photo of the order on their phone and send it to their abuser. However, it is currently not clear if this is a legally sound approach, he said.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times