THE BLOG

Elder Abuse Growing into a National Crisis

06/11/2015 06:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016
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Do you know what America's "dirty little secret" is? The hidden problem of elder abuse, according to the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL). Here's what you should know about this serious social problem.

Elder abuse isn't a new phenomenon.

But awareness of the problem is relatively new. One of the first public reports on elder abuse was published in a 1975 British Medical Journal paper, which described the occurrence of "granny battering" or "granny bashing."

By the mid-1970s, America had awakened to reports and articles on battered and abandoned elders that were documented in professional literature. The initial response to these reports was disbelief and denial, which turned into public outrage as soon as elder abuse stories hit the mainstream media.

Elder laws and definitions can vary widely.

Each state has created statutory laws that address elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. These statutes can differ greatly.

Defining elder abuse would seem straightforward, but it's not. The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) states that definitions vary, the problem is mostly concealed, and what actions or inactions constitute abuse are hard to pin down.

In broad terms, elder abuse can be defined as "any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult."

Elder abuse is a complex problem.

The NCEA provides general categories of elder abuse. Domestic elder abuse is mistreatment toward an elder by a person in a trust relationship with him or her in a home setting, whereas institutional elder abuse is committed by a person who has a legal or contractual obligation to him or her in a residential setting.

Seven types of elder abuse are physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment, financial and material exploitation and self-neglect.

America's growing elderly population is a contributing factor.

The older population is expected to rapidly grow between 2010 and 2050. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the number of seniors aged 65 and over will double, from 44.7 million in 2013 to 88.5 million in 2050. With the projected growth in the elderly population, the prevalence and incidence of elder abuse will likely increase.

Elder neglect is the most common type of abuse.

In a domestic setting, neglect is the most common type of abuse (55%), followed by physical abuse (14.6%), financial and material exploitation (12.3 percent), emotional abuse (7.7 %), sexual abuse (less than 1 percent), and other types of abuse (6.1 percent), as reported by the NCEA.

The extent of the elder abuse problem is largely unknown.

No one knows how many older Americans are victims of elder abuse. A conservative estimate says that every year about 2.1 million older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

For every one elder abuse case reported to the authorities, roughly five go unreported, according to NCEA prevalence data.

The number one risk factor for elder abuse is vulnerability.

Vulnerable older people are susceptible to the abusive behaviors of people who hold negative views toward elders.

Other risk factors for elder abuse and neglect include dementia and cognitive impairment, transgenerational violence, personal and financial problems of the abuser, and environmental conditions.

Elder abuse is usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts.

Family members were the perpetrators in about 90% of cases of domestic elder abuse and neglect, according to The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study.

Adult children are most often the perpetrators of elder abuse, followed by other family members and spouses, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Forty-two percent of murder victims over 60 were killed by their offspring, while 24 percent were killed by their spouses, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.

Elder financial abuse can be just as devastating as other forms of abuse.

The MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse revealed that older victims of financial exploitation lose about $2.9 billion annually.

The same study found that women were twice as likely to be victims of elder financial abuse, as compared to men. Most victims were aged 80 to 89, lived alone, and depended on others for medical or financial assistance.

Gender matters in the calculus of elder abuse.

Women are at greater risk to become an elder abuse victim during their lifetime, according to The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study.

Study results also found that women were the victims in 76.3% of cases of emotional or psychological abuse, 71.4 of physical abuse, 63% of financial/material exploitation, and 60% of neglect. Men were the majority of victims (62.2%) of abandonment.

Community-based organizations are available to assist victims and their families.

Should you suspect that a family member or a relative is being neglected, abused, or exploited, your first call should be made to Adult Protective Services (APS).

Other state resources to go for help include Area Agencies on Aging, Long-Term Care Ombudsman, law enforcement, legal services, and domestic violence programs.

Preventing and combating elder abuse is everyone's responsibility. We can all do our part to create healthy and safe community environments for our elderly loved ones, relatives, neighbors, and friends.