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Causes and Characteristics of Elder Abuse

Date Published
January 6, 2013

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Understanding the Causes of Elder Abuse

Because concern for elder abuse as a criminal issue is a fairly recent development, there are gaps in our knowledge about the extent and causes of such abuse.

The majority of research on elder mistreatment has focused on victims; the motivations of persons that abuse and the relationship between abuses and victims have received little attention. This produces an incomplete picture of the dynamics fueling elder abuse. Also, the field of research has relied heavily on the caregiver stress model, which holds that elder abuse can be attributed to the stress associated with providing care and assistance to frail, highly dependent elderly people. However, this model does not fit all situations and types of elder abuse.

The field lacks an adequate guiding theory to explain the range of causes behind elder abuse and promote systematic data collection.

Researchers have adapted a number of existing theories of interpersonal violence to supplement the study of elder abuse and have proposed a range of explanations:

  • They have learned from the behavior of others around them that violence is a way to solve problems or obtain a desired outcome.
  • They feel they don't receive enough benefit or recognition from their relationship with the elderly person, so they resort to violence in an effort to obtain their "fair share."
  • A combination of background and current factors, such as recent conflicts and a family history of "solving" problems through violence, influences the relationship.
  • They use a pattern of coercive tactics to gain and maintain power and control in a relationship.
  • Many factors in elder abuse arise through individual, relationship, community and societal influences.
  • Elder abuse can be attributed to both the victim's and the individual abusing's social and biomedical characteristics, the nature of their relationship, and power dynamics, within their shared environment of family and friends.

A more robust response to elder abuse will need to be guided by theory that accounts for both the victim and the person who perpetrates the abuse, including their cognitive functioning, the types of abuse, the domestic setting, and the nature of their relationship.

Case Characteristics of Elder Abuse in Domestic Settings

Elder abuse cases tend to be multidimensional. Improving our understanding of the complexity of elder abuse cases can help researchers both develop and evaluate theory-based explanations for abuse. Recent research has shed some light on case characteristics common to different types of elder abuse.

Physical abuse. Contrary to common belief, many elderly victims of physical abuse are high functioning. The person who abuses them is typically a family member, often the adult offspring of the victim. The person who abuses them may be a long-term dependent of the victim because of health or financial issues and may take out resentment for this dependence on the elderly victim. These victims are generally aware that they are being mistreated, but their sense of parental or family obligation makes them reluctant to cut off the person who abuses them.

Neglect. In cases of elder neglect, the victim may be physically frail or cognitively vulnerable. The caregiver does not take adequate care of the victim, who may acknowledge his or her own shortcomings as a parent and conclude that the tables are being turned — and that he or she deserves no better.

Financial exploitation. Victims of financial exploitation often lack someone with whom they can discuss and monitor financial issues. They may have an emerging, unrecognized cognitive impairment; worry about a future loss of independence; and be overly trusting of a caregiver capable of theft, fraud and misuse of assets.

Hybrid cases. Cases where financial exploitation is combined with physical abuse or neglect typically involve financially dependent family members, particularly adult offspring, who have been cared for by the elderly person. As the elderly person declines in health and becomes more socially isolated, he or she relies more on the person who abuses them for care, resulting in a mutual dependency. Such hybrid cases are unique in many ways and tend to have worse outcomes for victims than other kinds of elder abuse, perhaps because the abuse is accompanied by the stress of financial loss.

Read more about research on financial exploitation and hybrid cases of elder abuse.

About This Article

The research findings described in the article are the result of NIJ award to the University of Virginia.

This article is based on the NIJ publication Understanding Elder Abuse: New Directions for Developing Theories of Elder Abuse Occurring in Domestic Settings (pdf, 40 pages) by Shelly L. Jackson Ph.D., and Thomas L. Hafemeister, J.D., Ph.D.

Date Published: January 6, 2013