London Half a million elderly people in the UK are suffering some form of abuse or neglect, according to Help the Aged.
A major survey by the charity claims they face physical, emotional, sexual or financial mistreatment.
But campaigners say that, despite the size of the problem, more than one-third of people have never heard of elder abuse.
And a quarter of those questioned admitted they would not know how to spot if an older person was suffering.
Help the Aged is launching a national campaign – Enough is Enough – to draw attention to the problem.
Supported by TV presenter Esther Rantzen, it aims to raise awareness of the warning signs and give advice on how to help.
Ms Rantzen told BBC News 24: “As a nation we’re not very good at valuing older people. They’re sort of detritus, they’re a bit of sort of rubbish.
“It’s all about younger people these days and when you start getting white hairs and wrinkles on your face you’ve had your time… why don’t you push off to a care home.
“If we treat older people with respect, if we value them and treat them as precious the way we regard children now, that would do a great deal to provide the comfort and protection that vulnerable old people need.”
Help the Aged says many people in Britain wrongly believe elder abuse is most likely to be carried out in care homes by professional staff.
In fact, it claims the largest proportion of abusers are related to their victim and that 64% of abuse occurs in the older person’s own home.
Paul Cann, director of policy at Help the Aged, said: “These figures signal a frightening ‘Not in my back yard’ public attitude, fuelling existing myths that abuse of older people is largely carried out in professional settings, or by primary carers and never close to home.
“We know this simply isn’t the case. Elder abuse can happen anywhere and by anyone, and is more likely to occur within the family home, by someone in a position of trust.
“If more people understood what elder abuse is and its impact on those affected, instead of treating it as a taboo, we’d be one step closer to tackling this national scandal.”
Elder abuse in the UK
46% of abusers are related to their victims
25% of abusers are sons and daughters
80-89 year olds are most at risk
A new booklet produced by Help the Aged lists tell-tale signs which concerned friends and relatives should look out for.
These include the person becoming withdrawn or depressed, changes to their appearance such as weight loss or an over-emphasis on insisting everything is fine.
Ms Rantzen added: “Elder abuse not only has a devastating effect on older people, it shocks and appals their loved ones and indeed the whole nation.
“What kind of country allows older people to suffer and looks away?”
Help the Aged is also calling for:
* a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of elder abuse
* compulsory training in the prevention and recognition of abuse for anyone working with the elderly
* elder abuse to be given the same priority as child abuse
* greater awareness among the legal profession to ensure abusers are brought to justice
To support the campaign, Help the Aged has also produced a moving documentary in which an actor tells the story of an abuse victim in her own words.
Story fromBBC News