Understanding Elder Abuse

By Lyn Boyer

Although the extent of elder abuse is not completely known, the problem affects a significant number of older persons.  According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, “every year an estimated 2.1 million older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation. And that’s only part of the picture: Experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported, as many as five cases go unreported.”

The National Center for Elder Abuse states that “the only national study that attempted to define the scope of elder abuse found that the vast majority of abusers were family members (approximately 90%), most often adult children, spouses, partners, and others.They went on to say that “family members who abuse drugs or alcohol, who have a mental/emotional illness, and who feel burdened by their caregiving responsibilities abuse at higher rates than those who do not.”

Abuse of the elderly gained national attention in 1985 with the publication of Elder Abuse: A National Disgrace, a report by the Subcommittee on Health & Long Term Care of the Select Committee on Aging, U.S. House of Representatives.  At that time, the study concluded:

  • Elder abuse cuts across all classes of society
  • Elder abuse is rarely reported and less likely to be reported than child abuse.  Only 1 in 5 were reported.
  • Elder abuse can take many forms: physical, emotional, sexual, financial, neglect, self-neglect, abandonment, abduction
  • Elder abuse is reoccurring rather than a one time incident

Since that time, the picture has changed little. However, all fifty states and the District of Columbia now have provisions in their laws to protect elderly persons from abuse, neglect and exploitation.


Two chapters of Florida Statutes deal specifically with Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of the Elderly.

Chapter 825, Florida Statues, titled “Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of Elderly Persons and Disabled Adults” fully defines abuse, neglect and exploitation and categorizes each offense as a felony.

Chapter 415 provides for Adult Protective Services to allow individual in need of protection because of age or disability “the same rights as other citizens and, at the same time, protect the individual from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.” The law is designed to help with  detection and correction of abuse, neglect, and exploitation through social services and criminal investigations.  


Seniors in need of protective services most often experience one or more of the following circumstances:

  1. MEMORY LOSS AND IMPAIRED JUDGMENT – Victims usually suffer from acute memory loss and impaired judgment due to some form of dementia or disease.
  1. ISOLATION AND LONELINESS – The victim is often living alone with no relatives in the area.  Isolation and loneliness can enhance dependency on outsiders and a desire for attention from outsiders.
  1. LACK OF AWARENESS – Often the victim is unaware of the theft or exploitation due to infirmities or impaired memory and judgment.
  1. GUILT – The victim of exploitation often feels responsible for allowing the exploitation and guilty about pursuing the perpetrator.  They generally are meek and wish no harm to the perpetrator even though they have been exploited.

A victim of abuse is likely to be seventy-five or older and placed in a dependent position.  Women are more likely to be abused than men.


Individuals most often suspected or found guilty of elder abuse fall into one or more of the following categories:

  1. NO PRIOR CRIMINAL RECORD – Because of the vulnerability of the elderly victim and low probability of being caught, the suspect usually has no criminal record.
  1. FINANCIAL TROUBLES – Except where suspects target the elderly, suspects who exploit in an isolated incident often have personal financial problems.
  1. MANIPULATION. – Often suspects control the victim’s environment and increase dependency and generally manipulate the victim.
  1. RATIONALIZATION – Suspects often rationalize their actions as sincere and honest particularly where they are caregivers. 

The perpetrator of abuse is likely to be a caregiver or family member.  Extreme stress may lead a caregiver to abuse the elderly. The abuse is generally reoccurring. 

For more information, check the following:

Prepared for informational purposes only



Image: National Center on Elder Abuse U.S. Government Agency

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