Dynamics of Abuse in Later Life

Abuse in later life can happen to older adults from all communities, racial and ethnic groups, and all economic levels. Abuse can occur across all genders and sexual orientations and it can happen in private dwellings or facility settings, or in public. Different forms of abuse can co-occur, meaning that it is possible that a victim could be experiencing multiple forms of abuse at the same time.

Abuse in later life is often violence against women.  The majority of older victims are female; about 1/3 of older victims are male.  A significant portion of abuse in later life is perpetrated by a spouse or intimate partner. In most instances, abuse in later life is perpetrated by people who are in a relationship where the victim and society expects compassion and caring, including spouses or intimate partners, family members, caregivers, or other fiduciaries.1  That said, sexual assault, stalking in later life, and/or scams may be committed by strangers.

Power and Control Dynamics

Often power and control dynamics are present in cases of abuse in later life. These dynamics are similar to those present in cases of abuse involving younger victims. Perpetrators of abuse in later life often employ a pattern of coercive tactics to gain and maintain power and control over a victim. Abusers intimidate and manipulate victims to gain some kind of benefit. They are often greedy and feel entitled to do whatever necessary to get what they want. 

In 2005, NCALL staff worked with facilitators of older abused women’s support groups to have participants review the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project’s Power and Control Wheel. Based on the input NCALL received from over 50 survivors of abuse in later life, we created the Abuse in Later Life Power and Control Wheel as a visual tool to depict some common tactics and behaviors of abusers. 

To view NCALL’s Abuse in Later Life Power and Control wheel, please click the link below:

NCALL ALL Power and Control Wheel

To view the Duluth Power and Control Wheel, please click the link below:

Duluth Power & Control Wheel

Other Dynamics

In a small number of abuse in later life cases, power and control dynamics may not be present. For example, occasionally a well-intended caregivers is unable to provide adequate care and an older adult is harmed unintentionally. Also, a small number of abuse in later life occurs because an abuser cannot control their behavior due to medical or mental health condition that manifests in aggressive, inappropriate, or violent behavior.

Caregiver Stress and Other Issues

Early research on abuse in later life concluded that abuse against older victims was primarily caused by caregiver stress. However, current research has since determined that what is most often underlying an abuser’s behavior is not caregiver stress, but is in fact entitlement thinking patterns and a desire to exert and maintain power and control over a victim. Often other issues co-exist with abuse (i.e. anger, substance abuse, etc.), but they do not cause abuse.

To learn more about the dynamics of abuse in later life and caregiver stress, please click the link below:

Policy Implications of Recognizing Caregiver Stress

1 Acierno, R., Hernandez-Tejada, M., Muzzy, W., Steve, K. (2009). National Elder Mistreatment Study. Lifespan of Greater Rochester, Inc., Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University, and New York City Department for the Aging. (2011). Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study Self-Reported Prevalence and Documented Case Surveys.



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