Elder Abuse

Because older adults, who have poorer physical strength and skill and frequently live alone, are more vulnerable to crime than their younger contemporaries, a number of public and private organizations have taken steps to combat the problem of crime against the elderly. Older residents of metropolitan areas, in particular, are often preyed upon by thieves and attackers, who want the monthly pension and benefit checks, cash, and other property of older adults. Aged widows and others who live alone are special targets of these young hoodlums, who lie in wait for them in the streets or invade their homes (see Aiken, 1995).

Strangers are not the only ones who abuse the elderly. Each year, an estimated 1 million older Americans are physically, psychologically, or financially abused by their relatives (Pillemer & Finkelhor, 1988). According to the National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse (NARCEA), elder abuse is one of the most underrecognized and underreported social problems of this country, and far less likely than child abuse to be reported (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1994). Among the reasons for elder abuse are financial gain, revenge, hatred of the aged and of old age, and even displaced aggression.

Hickey and Douglass (1981) describe four types of elder abuse that may occur in the home: passive neglect, verbal or emotional abuse, active neglect, and physical abuse. Passive neglect, the most common and perhaps the least serious type of abuse, consists of leaving an older person alone, isolated, or forgotten. More common is verbal or emotional abuse, in which the victim is frightened, humiliated, insulted, threatened, or treated like a child. Even less common is active neglect —confining or isolating an elderly person, or withholding food or medication from him or her. The least common, and arguably the most serious, of all forms of elder abuse is physical abuse —hitting, slapping, restraining, or in other ways physically mistreating the victim. Older people may also be the victims of sexual abuse, nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind with an older person. The Special Committee on Aging of the U.S. Senate also provides a separate category of financial or material exploitation, defined as the unauthorized use of funds, property, or resources of an older person (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1994).

In addition to the various types of domestic abuse described in the preceding paragraph are institutional abuse and self-neglect (self-abuse).

Institutional abuse may occur in institutional or residential facilities that provide board and care for older adults. Self-abuse is the neglectful or abusive conduct of an older person, directed at him- or herself, that threatens the person's safety. With respect to the criminal nature of various types of abuse, physical, sexual, financial/material abuses, and, in some instances, emotional abuse and neglect are crimes. However, no state views self-abuse by an elderly person as a crime (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1994).

The popular conception of a son or daughter who is under extreme stress from having to take care of a physically impaired, dependent mother or father is not the typical scenario for elder abuse. Rather, in the majority of cases, the abuser is the spouse rather than the children of the victim, and the abuser is as dependent on the victim (for money, a place to stay, transportation, cooking, cleaning, etc.) as vice versa. Furthermore, older men are just as likely as older women to be the victims of abuse (Pillemer & Finkelhor, 1988; Wolf & Pil-lemer, 1989).3

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