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Elder Abuse and Neglect - Definitions And Types Of Abuse And Neglect, Incidence And Prevalence, Victim And Perpetrator Characteristics, Prevention And Intervention

aging mistreatment family adults researchers

The American family has historically been viewed as a sacrosanct institution for care of the individual—the inviolate haven of love, safety, and protection. Growing awareness of family violence, however, has shown this view to be faulty, first with the "discovery" of child neglect and abuse in the 1960s, followed by spouse abuse in the early 1970s, and elder neglect and abuse in the mid-1970s. Yet, Peter Stearns and Shulamit Reinharz believe that family violence, in general, and elder mistreatment, specifically, have existed since the beginning of human history. Early examples of elder neglect and abuse include adult sons killing their aged parents in Teutonic societies and Native American tribes abandoning their elders when they can no longer travel (Sumner).

Acceptance of these historical facts as evidence depends on one's definitions of elder abuse and neglect. The likelihood of disagreement is considerable, since these concepts are value-laden and typically trigger emotional responses before logical thought. In addition, the perception of violence varies from society to society, and culture to culture. William Sumner argues that either honor or destruction underpin societies. When it is the former, older adults are respected and honored, while with the latter they are viewed as societal burdens which sap the strength of the society. This negative view of older adults sets the stage for ageism and mistreatment.

Although mistreatment of older adults is probably not a new phenomenon, awareness that some elders are mistreated and interest in examining the problem are relatively new. Initial professional recognition occurred almost simultaneously in Great Britain and America. In 1975, G. R. Burston wrote of "granny bashing" and Robert Butler described the "battered old person syndrome." In 1978 Suzanne Steinmetz shared her "discovery" of battered elders. Over the succeeding years as more cases were uncovered, initial disbelief and denial have given way to acknowledgment of the societal problems of elder neglect and abuse. In the early 1980s, researchers began to investigate elder mistreatment, and the House Select Committee on Aging began a series of public hearings around the country.

Most of the early research, which viewed elder neglect as a more benign subtype of elder abuse, examined the extent and nature of elder mistreatment among older adults living alone or with family members, friends, or other relatives and caretakers in the community. The prevailing view was that elder mistreatment was a domestic issue; it occurred within the family.

The early studies documented the existence of elder abuse and neglect, but did not provide clear or consistent information on the antecedents, causes, or consequences, or on the characteristics of the perpetrators or victims. For example, many of the early researchers identified functional disability, impairment, or dependence of the older adult as common correlates of both elder abuse and neglect (Douglass, Hickey, and Noel; O'Malley et al.; Steuer and Austin). More recent studies, which employed comparison of elder abuse and elder neglect cases, have found these characteristics are correlated with elder neglect but not with abuse (Phillips; Pillemer; Wolf). Some experts in the field believe that elder neglect is not a subtype of elder abuse (Fulmer and Gould; Hudson, 1986, 1991; Pedrick-Cornell and Gelles). Yet most of the research has included elder neglect as a subtype of abuse, confounding the findings for these two main forms of elder mistreatment. A few researchers have addressed both in the same study but have analyzed the results separately, providing evidence that elder abuse and neglect are distinct phenomena with differing risk factors and perpetrators.

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