Experts say that as many as 5 million elderly people are abused on an annual basis. Even more tragically, the New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study found that for every case known to programs and agencies, 24 were unknown.”
And all too often, incidents of abuse are often dismissed by public officials: the cases being seen as "civil" matters, or the vicitms seen as "too unreliable" as witnesses to make the cases stick.
We spoke with Julie Schoen, Deputy Director of the National Center on Elder Abuse to learn more about Elder Abuse, the resources available, and why elder abuse is so misunderstood.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Let’s start with some basics: Who is the National Center on Elder Abuse and what is your organization doing to help us protect our vulnerable elderly citizens?
Julie Schoen: The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) serves as a national resource center dedicated to the prevention of elder mistreatment.
Our mission is to “To improve the national response to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation by gathering, housing, disseminating, and stimulating innovative, validated methods of practice, education, research, and policy.” To carry out our mission, the NCEA disseminates elder abuse information to professionals and the public and provides technical assistance and training to states and to community-based organizations.
- makes news and resources available on-line and an easy-to-use format;
- collaborates on research;
- provides training;
- identifies and provides information about promising practices and interventions;
- operates a listserv forum for professionals;
- and provides subject matter expertise on program development.
JCH: Why do you think Elder Abuse happens in the first place? What makes this population so vulnerable to so many different kinds of abuse?
Julie: Although the causes of elder abuse are complex and type- and case-specific, there are some clear risk factors for perpetrators (e.g., mental health problems, substance abuse, and financial stress), for victims (e.g., dementia, social isolation, and physical dependency), and for context (e.g., lack of caregiving support and history of conflict).
I believe there are many cultural issues that are contributing factors, ageism is rampant in our society and devalues older people this creates a context that is conducive to elder abuse. I believe that this ageism leads to the social isolation of older adults and therefore makes them very vulnerable to predators who seek out more isolated, lonely individuals.
1 in 10 Americans aged 60+
have experienced some form of elder abuse.
JCH: As several of our presenters have discussed, Elder Abuse tends to be very “hidden” in nature. From your experience and expertise in this topic, why is that?
Julie: I believe many victims are reluctant to report abuse because they may:
- Feel ashamed and embarrassed, particularly if a family member is the abuser
- Be afraid that the abuser will get in trouble
- Worry that they will be forced to live in a nursing home—and this sometimes happens
- Feel guilty or somehow to blame
- Be in denial that the abuse is occurring, or unaware that what they are experiencing is abuse or neglect
- Be afraid that if they report, the abuse will get worse
Some victims are unable to speak out due to dementia or other impairments, or may not be believed when they do. Although this theory hasn’t been fully researched, as I mentioned earlier, there are indications that a culture of ageism and a fear of growing old may keep older people marginalized and undervalued in our society, hence their problems remain invisible or are viewed as unimportant
"…There are many cultural issues
that are contributing factors.
Ageism is rampant in our society
and devalues older people.
This creates a context that is conducive to elder abuse."
JCH: If there was any one misunderstanding or myth justice professionals might have about elder abuse, what would it be?
Julie: Where to start… I think we need to take Elder Abuse seriously, it is a crime. I often hear from frustrated individuals who do report a financial crime only to be told by Law enforcement “Well, it really was just a family (or a civil) matter” when in fact the person was unduly influenced and robbed.
We tend to construct elder abuse as a relationship between a “perpetrator and a victim” and typically cast older people as powerless and vulnerable reinforcing stereotypes of older people as passive, vulnerable beings.
The public shares a deep fatalism about the possibility of preventing elder abuse and, when pressed to think about solutions, people focus on surveillance and remediation after the fact. This limited understanding of solutions is unsurprising, given the public’s strong paternalistic perceptions of older people as vulnerable, passive wards in need of protection.
Education and awareness campaigns need to emphasize the support systems that are in place, Adult Protective Services, the long-term care Ombudsman, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, NCEA, NAPSA, law enforcement, our Department of Justice has a very vibrant Elder Justice initiative etc.
If we come together and learn from the experts in domestic violence and child abuse also, we can begin to use the value of Justice to promote a sense of collective responsibility for addressing and preventing elder abuse.
JCH: When experts talk about Elder Abuse, they’re really talking about a range of activities that abuse the elderly individual. In your experience, however, which are perhaps the most common? And which are the ones that justice professionals most often miss?
Julie: When I look at our analytics Financial Elder Abuse is definitely the most reported type of abuse and it runs the gamut from on-line schemes to familial controversies. The next area is neglect, but this is where things are missed. In our haste to “get to the bottom” of something, we often forget to stop for a moment, look at the individual in the eye and ask them what happened, ask them for their opinion. I am aware that sometimes this is not possible, but I think we should all try. All of us want to be treated with dignity and respect, we want our voice to be heard, this need does not diminish as we age.
JCH: Let’s say one of our members attends the upcoming webinars, becomes even more interested and wants to learn more about elder abuse cases/protection. What resources would you point them to?
Julie: We would encourage people to review our websites and to contact us.
National Center on Elder Abuse Provides research, policy, practical tools, and education as a national resource center dedicated to the prevention of elder mistreatment.
Training Resources on Elder Abuse A comprehensive collection of all of the relevant training materials that have been developed concerning elder abuse so that you can learn as an individual, go out and teach others or assist with a course you are developing.
USC Center on Elder Mistreatment For a listing of all of the research, education, practice and policy pertaining to Elder Abuse being developed throughout the University of Southern California.
Also, consider joining in on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day activities. These will help them to be fully connected with the varying disciplines involved.