The number of senior citizens in America is growing rapidly, and the largely vulnerable population is experiencing an alarming increase in violence and potential abuse, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Assaults against the older generation of America nearly doubled between 2002 and 2016, and could double again by 2030 if population and violence rates continue on their current trend, the CDC said.
In 2017, people over the age of 60 made up 22 percent of the U.S. population, and this is expected to reach 28 percent by 2050, according to the CDC. At the same time, the rate of assaults on American men 60 and older increased 75 percent between 2002 and 2016 and 35 percent for women between 2007 and 2016.
“These findings highlight the need to strengthen violence prevention among older adults,” the report concluded. “Unfortunately, few strategies have been rigorously evaluated.”
Identifying the Problem
Julie Schoen, Deputy Director at the National Center on Elder Abuse, told The Globe Post that an explanation for the lack of research and attention paid to the elderly population is complex. In part, it is difficult to measure financial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect on a single scale and issues related to elder abuse receive minimal funding in comparison to domestic violence and child abuse.
“As our population ages, people are coming to terms with this social justice and public health issue, but there is inherent ageism as the basis of elder abuse that we must examine. We are all aging and we must embrace that fact rather than run from it or look for ‘anti-aging’ solutions,” Schoen said.
— Katarina Friberg Felsted, PhD (@katarinafelsted) April 22, 2019
The reality that older adults are accounting for greater proportions of the population is key to understanding this increase in assaults on the elderly.
The CDC used data from two government databases to examine the number of older victims of violence between 2002 and 2016, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System – All Injury Program and the National Vital Statistics System. Researchers looked at emergency room visits specifically to determine the number of assaults and homicides.
Emergency room reports showed researchers a key area where ambiguity in identifying and addressing violence against the elderly threatens to maintain the problem on its current course.
The CDC included in its conclusion that emergency departments are specially positioned to help prevent violence among this group via training that would allow medical professionals to more effectively identify and report situations of elder abuse.
In a report published for the Annals of Emergency Medicine International Medical Journal, Doctors found that Emergency Room visits remain the best and most opportune place to identify elder abuse because these visits are unplanned, leaving perpetrators and victims little to no time to suppress evidence.
Bonnie Brandl, Director and Founder of The National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life is currently working with Futures Without Violence to create universal education materials for older adults that healthcare providers can give to older patients describing healthy relationships and providing resources for victims of abuse.
“Health care providers have a unique opportunity to build trusted relationships with patients, to ask questions and to provide information and resources,” Brandl stated.
Men Most Affected
Compared with women, the CDC report found that men experienced higher rates of both nonfatal assault and homicide within the study’s time window. The bulk of the assualts, 87 percent, were situations of being struck or hit.
“This data surprised me,” Brandl said. “I would love to see more research done in this area to answer questions and to help us build public awareness campaigns and interventions to reach this age group, especially men.”
Brandl spoke to a distinct lack of research and effective solutions surrounding the problem, establishing that there has been some success in smaller studies helping in understanding the scope of the problem, but that there is still too little data about the national prevalence and incidence of elder abuse.
According to Brandl, there needs to be more research on what interventions are effective and funds to provide those services.
The situations detailed in the CDC report are not defined strictly as situations of elder abuse per its definition.
Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult. (An older adult is defined as someone age 60 or older.)
According to experts, elder abuse has had too little attention, and a key factor in this is what the CDC describes as a poor and imprecise definition for elder abuse. In turn, the research that is conducted offers numbers in estimates with no clear understanding of the issue as it exists throughout the nation among various elder demographics.
“We live in a youth-oriented society that focuses on the needs of children, animals and younger adults,” Brandl told The Globe Post.
“Too often researchers and service programs focus on child abuse and domestic abuse rather than elder abuse. As a society, we need to shift against values and norms that make elder abuse an invisible problem.”
Schoen and Brandl both described the societal solution as being the confrontation of ageist beliefs, practices, and norms so that older adults can be valued, and treated with respect and dignity.
“Studies have shown that social support can be a key preventative strategy,” Brandl stated. “So informal and formal programs for older adults to break isolation through faith communities, the aging network, and other social support services could make a difference.”