Abuse in later life and elder abuse are terms used to describe harm to older adults. Abuse in later life and elder abuse can happen to any older adult and can occur in any setting and across all communities and backgrounds. To learn more about abuse in later life, elder abuse, and the dynamics of abuse in later life, continue reading below.  For additional resources on abuse in later life, please visit our Resources page.

Defining Abuse in Later Life and Elder Abuse

What is Abuse in Later Life?

NCALL defines abuse in later life as the willful abuse, neglect, abandonment, or financial exploitation of an older adult who is age 50+ by someone in an ongoing, trust-based relationship (i.e., spouse, partner, family member, or caregiver) with the victim. NCALL also considers sexual abuse and stalking of an older adult by anyone (including strangers) to be abuse in later life. Our definition of abuse in later life does not include other types of abuse committed by strangers, or self-neglect. With these considerations in mind, NCALL’s definition of abuse in later life intentionally calls attention to the nexus between domestic violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse.

What is Elder Abuse?

The Elder Justice Roadmap created by the field and for the field funded by the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services defines elder abuse as “abuse, neglect, abandonment, or financial exploitation of an older individual by another person or entity who has a trust-based relationship with the older adult or, any harm that occurs because an older person is targeted by a stranger based on their age or disability” (DOJ, 2013).  NCALL typically uses this definition of elder abuse in our materials and training.

Policy makers, researchers, practitioners and other professionals may use other definitions of elder abuse in their work.  Some definitions are based on a specific age.  Other definitions focus on the person’s vulnerability. Last, many state statutes and tribal codes include self-neglect in the definition of elder abuse, although increasingly professionals are differentiating between the case where an older adult is unable to provide care for him/herself and the case where a perpetrator is harming an older adult.

In order to determine the definition of elder abuse is in your community, we encourage you to review all applicable elder abuse and vulnerable adult statutes and/or tribal codes.

Dynamics of Abuse in Later Life

Abuse in Later Life Dynamics

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 ⅓ 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.

  • To learn more about the dynamics of abuse in later life, please click on the following resource: Dynamics (PDF 284 KB)

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.

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.

Caregiver Stress and 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.

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.

Other pages in this section

Lifting Up Voices Videos
The Lifting Up Voices video series features older survivors who have experienced one or more of the following:  intimate partner violence, financial exploitation, and scams, sexual assault/abuse or stalking. 
Working with Older Survivors
The Working with Older Survivors videos, created in conjunction with the resource Working with Older Survivors of Abuse: A Framework for Advocates,  offer subject matter experts discussing key concepts related to supporting older survivors of abuse.
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