The Invisibility of Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is defined by the CDC as an intentional action or refusal of action by a caregiver or another person who is in a relationship with an elder where there is an expectation of trust. This trust and then failure of action or poor action results in risk or harm to the older adult in the relationship. Elder abuse can take place in the following relationship dynamics: parent-child, grandparent-grandchild, elder-caregiver, elder-friend, elder-romantic partner, and more.

Elder abuse can include the following:

  • Physical abuse. Physical abuse includes actions involving physical force that result in harm, injury, pain, distress, or even death. Common examples of physical abuse include hitting, pushing, strangling, and kicking.
  • Psychological Abuse. Emotional or psychological abuse includes actions (verbal or nonverbal) that elicit isolation, humiliation, fear, decreased sense of worth, and more. Common examples of psychological abuse include gaslighting, threats, manipulation, and patterns of controlling behavior. For older adults, psychological abuse can include threatening to place them in a nursing home, gaslighting the elder by stating they are old and forgetful, and refusing access to communicative devices like phones or computers.
  • Sexual Abuse. Sexual abuse includes any touch or actions done without the explicit, informed, and sensible consent of the elder.
  • Financial Abuse. Financial abuse includes the misuse or theft of someone’s property or resources. This can include using credit cards without permission, stealing money, and depriving someone of access to their resources. Elder financial abuse can come in the form of stealing money, misusing credit cards, or refusing to provide access to the elder’s money supply.
  • Neglect. Neglect involves the failure of a caregiver to adequately care for their client. This can include the failure to protect from danger and the failure to meet medical, nutrition, shelter, and basic hygiene needs. For elders, this could include the failure of a caregiver to provide proper clothing, the failure to provide medical care when necessary, or the failure to maintain a safe environment for the elder.

Elder Abuse Statistics

According to the 1998 National Elder Abuse Incidence Study, female elders make up for 2/3 of abused elders and out of that 66%, female elders with disabilities were more likely to suffer abuse. In addition, elders who suffer from other disorders including dementia and chronic illness are afflicted by elder abuse at a significantly higher rate.

Why is Elder Abuse Seemingly “Invisible?”

While abuse and domestic violence of all kinds remain significantly underreported, elder abuse is disproportionately underreported when compared to other dynamics of abuse. Elder abuse remains largely invisible due to a variety of intersecting factors.

  • Health. Many elders who suffer from abuse are also suffering from poor health, illness, and debilitating conditions such as dementia. These health conditions can lead elders to forget the abuse occurred or feel unable to report the abuse due to their physical ability or a lack of resource access due to the abuser’s actions.
  • Family dynamics. As elder abuse is often perpetrated by a family member, the elder suffering abuse may feel conflicted about reporting the maltreatment and elect not to. They may fear the family member getting in serious trouble or they may fear they won’t be believed because the abuser is family.
  • Fear. Elders who are abused may be afraid of reporting abuse due to fear that the abuse may worsen or that law enforcement may not believe them. In addition, elders may fear that by reporting their caregiver, they will end up in a nursing home or assisted living facility before they are ready to.
  • Ageism. Unfortunately, age discrimination and the devaluing of individuals as they age is common. This ageism can keep the abuse largely “invisible,” as society may have already deemed the elder to be marginalized and undervalued, making their wellbeing seem less important.

How to Address Elder Abuse

Elder abuse can be negated by the following:

  1. Education. By providing education to caregivers and ensuring caregiving businesses have strict guidelines on elder care, the likelihood of elder abuse can be decreased. As elder abuse is a public health issue, it’s also important to educate communities and social service providers on the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and proper intervention tactics.
  2. Increased services. Services for abused elders as rare and it may be challenging to abused elders to locate safe shelter and proper caregiving. By expanding shelter access and offering additional supportive services to elders, elders will be given more access to resources and support should they choose to report abuse.
  3. Law enforcement training. As law enforcement officers are often the first to hear of elder abuse, it’s important that they are well-educated on how to respond to situations involving elder abuse and how to ensure the elder’s safety and basic needs are being provided.
  4. Representation. It’s important that elders suffering from abuse feel represented and as if they are not invisible. By including older individuals in social service marketing materials or accurately portraying elder abuse in the media, we can aid elders in feeling seen and empowered to come forward and seek support.

If you are an elder suffering from abuse, call Women’s Advocates at 651-227-9966. If you believe an elder you know is suffering from abuse, speak with them, report the abuse, and ensure their continued safety by connecting them to resources. Not sure where to start? Reach out to Women’s Advocates. We can help.