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Posted: October 29, 2008

Why Elderly People Bruise So Easily

More Often Natural than Abuse

The next time you spot a nasty discoloration or unexplained bruise on your loved one’s skin, don’t jump to a conclusion that the bruise is the result of some form of abuse. While that may be the case, we should realize and remember that more times than not, those ugly bruises are simply a common side effect of aging.

A bruise occurs when damaged tiny blood vessels under the skin break, usually from a blow or other trauma. The harder the impact, the bigger the bruise becomes – and when you’re older, it doesn’t take much of a bump to trigger a bruise. Blood leaks under the skin followed by pain and swelling. Bruises are usually purple and, after a couple of weeks, they turn various shades of brown, yellow, and green.

While some bruising is mildly uncomfortable, deep bruises of the muscles hurt and can make it very painful for your loved one to move. You will probably recover from a minor bruise, which is also known as a contusion, in a couple of weeks, but it can take months for a senior’s to improve.

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Common Causes of Bruising

As we age, our skin retains less moisture and loses its elasticity. The connective tissue weakens the support around our blood vessels. Already damaged by years of exposure to the sun, your elderly loved one’s skin becomes paper-thin. It bruises and tears easily, sometimes doing so without any previous injury, not so much as a bump.

According to Fred Cicetti, author of the Keeping Seniors Healthy column on the website, an over consumption of the dietary supplements fish oil, ginkgo, ginger, and garlic can thin an older person’s blood causing bruising. He says other contusion culprits are prescription medicines including blood thinners Plavix and Coumadin, cortisone medications such as Prednisone, and over-the counter medicines Aleve, Advil, Nuprin, and even the common aspirin.

Alcoholism can cause bruising either directly or through falling. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults age 65 and older falls each year. In fact, after age 85, one woman in two falls, CDC says.

While all bruises need to be continuously monitored, some require immediate action. If your loved one experiences extreme pressure in the bruised area, especially if it is large and painful, contact a physician immediately. While extremely rare, this condition, known as compartment syndrome, sometimes leads to amputation, according to geriatrician Dr. Cheryl Woodson, a former member of the While House Conference on Aging and founder of Woodson Center for Adult Healthcare in New York.

Evaluating the Cause

In evaluating your loved one, ask yourself:

These unusual warning signs all indicate a need for immediate medical attention.

Is It Abuse?

When considering whether abuse played a role in the bruising, look at the entire circumstances. Ask these questions:

The California Department of Justice says, “While one or more of these types of bruising do not mean abuse has occurred, they should be treated as signs that diligent attention or an investigation is needed.”

When Abuse Is Likely

Discuss any bruises with your loved one. If they seem reluctant to talk or appear frightened or withdrawn, remind them that they are important and deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. Ask them if they are being treated respectfully. Your loved one actually may not realize they are being abused due to their decreased pain perception, or they just may not remember. Some abuse victims believe nothing can be done about it and fear retribution, if they speak up.

If you suspect your senior is being injured by others, ask their physician to order a lab test. It is the only accurate way to test for abuse. If the test confirms your suspicions, remove your elderly from the source of the problem and report it immediately to one of several organizations -- Adult Protective Services Association (217-523-4431), the National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center (202-332-2275), Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116), or your local law enforcement agency.

Treating the Bruising

Bruising goes away when the body reabsorbs the blood. To speed up the healing process, ice the affected area immediately. Woodson adds, “If it makes her feel better, apply a warm compress after the swelling has gone down.”

Bruising that begins immediately after starting a new medicine or herb may require an adjustment or change. However, never have your loved one stop any medication without first consulting their doctor.

If bruising appears related to a fall, make your elderly’s living quarters more fall-proof. Dr. George T. Grossberg, director of geriatric psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine, recommends installing grab bars in the bathroom and stairways, tacking down loose carpeting and rugs, clearing the area where an elderly person walks and placing a night light close to their bed.

“Reassure her,” he adds, “that it is just cosmetic and will heal. Rarely disorders of platelets or clotting may be the culprit.”

Reducing Bruising

To reduce bruising, Ann Marie Levine, clinical director of Weinberg Center in New York City, says, “Apply a lighter touch when washing your loved one. Use less force in lifting her and never pull on her forearms or any limb. If she is in a wheelchair, heavy white socks can protect her from bumping into objects that could lead to bruising. Have her physician review her meds.” 

Health columnist Cicetti recommends a daily application of alpha hydroxyacid lotions to the skin. He says it increases the skin’s thickness up to 15% through added collagen production, the skin’s natural support protein. Some individuals have benefited from additional units of vitamins B12, C, and K.

However, the best protection and treatment for a parent or other elderly person remains you, with your vigilant and loving caregiver’s eye.


Rachel Davidson is a freelance writer focusing on elderly care. She published a quarterly magazine for nursing home administrators for 15 years, as well as a caregiver newsletter for five years. Rachel lives in Baraboo, Wisconsin and can be reached at


Administration on Agingwebsite or (202) 619-0724 has a pamphlet with additional information on elder abuse and what you should do about it.

National Institute on Agingwebsite or (800) 222-2225 has an in-depth publication on how to prevent falls, especially those that could happen in the home.

AgingProwebsite or (888) 244-6499 has a helpful article on what to look for when hiring a caregiver in your home.

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