9.22: Elder Abuse

Current research indicates that at least 1 in 10, or approximately 4.3 million, older Americans are affected by at least one form of elder abuse per year (Roberto, 2016). Those between 60 and 69 years of age are more susceptible than those older. This may be because younger older adults more often live with adult children or a spouse, two groups with the most likely abusers. Cognitive impairment, including confusion and communication deficits, is the greatest risk factor for elder abuse, while a decline in overall health resulting in greater dependency on others is another. Having a disability also places an elder at a higher risk for abuse (Youdin, 2016). Definitions of elder abuse typically recognize five types of abuse as shown in Table 9.8.

Consequences of elder abuse are significant and include injuries, new or exacerbated health conditions, hospitalizations, premature institutionalization, and early death (Roberto, 2016). Psychological and emotional abuse is considered the most common form, even though it is underreported and may go unrecognized by the elder. Continual emotional mistreatment is very damaging as it becomes internalized and results in late-life emotional problems and impairment. Financial abuse and exploitation is increasing and costs seniors nearly 3 billion dollars per year (Lichtenberg, 2016). Financial abuse is the second most common form after emotional abuse, and affects approximately 5% of elders. Abuse and neglect occurring in a nursing home is estimated to be 25%-30% (Youdin, 2016). Abuse of nursing home residents is more often found in facilities that are run down and understaffed.

Table 9.8: Types of Elder Abuse.
Adapted from Roberto (2016)
Type Description
Physical abuse Physical force resulting in injury, pain, or impairment
Sexual abuse Nonconsensual sexual contact
Psychological and emotional abuse Infliction of distress through verbal or nonverbal acts such as yelling, threatening, or isolating
Financial abuse and exploitation Improper use of an elder’s finances, property, or assets
Neglect and abandonment Intentional or unintentional refusal or failure to fulfill caregiving duties to an elder

Older women are more likely to be victims than men, and one reason is due to women living longer. Additionally, a family history of violence makes older women more vulnerable, especially for physical and sexual abuse (Acierno et al., 2010). However, Kosberg (2014) found that men were less likely to report abuse. Recent research indicated no differences among ethnic groups in abuse prevalence, however, cultural norms regarding what constitutes abuse differ based on ethnicity. For example, Dakin and Pearlmutter found that working class White women did not consider verbal abuse as elder abuse, and higher socioeconomic status African American and White women did not consider financial abuse as a form of elder abuse (as cited in Roberto, 2016, p. 304).

Perpetrators of elder abuse are typically family members and include spouses/partners and older children (Roberto, 2016). Children who are abusive tend to be dependent on their parents for financial, housing, and emotional support. Substance use, mental illness, and chronic unemployment increase dependency on parents, which can then increase the possibility of elder abuse. Prosecuting a family member who has financially abused a parent is very difficult. The victim may be reluctant to press charges and the court dockets are often very full resulting in long waits before a case is heard. According to Tanne, family members abandoning older family members with severe disabilities in emergency rooms is a growing problem as an estimated 100,000 are dumped each year (as cited in Berk, 2007). Paid caregivers and professionals trusted to make decisions on behalf of an elder, such as guardians and lawyers, also perpetuate abuse. When elders feel they have social support and are engaged with others, they are less likely to suffer abuse.


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Lifespan Development - A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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