Defining Abuse in Later Life and Elder Abuse
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 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.
- For a more detailed overview of abuse in later life, please click on this resource: NCALL’s Overview of Abuse in Later Life (PDF 2MB)
- If you think you or someone you know is being harmed, please click either of the links below to read more about what you can do:
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.
- For a more detailed overview of elder abuse, please click on the following resource: NCALL’s Overview of Elder Abuse (PDF 957KB)
- To review current definitions from the elder abuse field, please click the following link: National Elder Abuse Definitions of Elder Abuse (PDF 250KB)
- To find out more about the forms of elder abuse, please click the following link: Forms of Elder Abuse (PDF 251KB)
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 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.
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 this link: NCALL ALL Power and Control Wheel (PDF 223KB)
- To view the Duluth Power and Control Wheel, please click this link: Duluth Power & Control Wheel (PDF 2MB)
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.
- To learn more about the dynamics of abuse in later life and caregiver stress, please click the following link: Policy Implications of Recognizing Caregiver Stress (844 KB)