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Risk Factors for Elder Abuse

Elder abuse, like other types of domestic violence, is extremely complex. Generally a combination of psychological, social, and economic factors, along with the mental and physical conditions of the victim and the perpetrator, contribute to the occurrence of elder maltreatment.

Although the factors listed below cannot explain all types of elder maltreatment, because it is likely that different types (as well as each single incident) involve different casual factors, they are some of the risk factors researchers say seem to be related to elder abuse.

Domestic Violence Grown Old

It is important to acknowledge that spouses make up a large percentage of elder abusers, and that a substantial proportion of these cases are domestic violence grown old: partnerships in which one member of a couple has traditionally tried to exert power and control over the other through emotional abuse, physical violence and threats, isolation, and other tactics.

Personal Problems of Abusers

Particularly in the case of adult children, abusers often are dependent on their victims for financial assistance, housing, and other forms of support. Oftentimes they need this support because of personal problems, such as mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, or other dysfunctional personality characteristics.

The risk of elder abuse seems to be particularly high when these adult children live with the elder.

Living with Others and Isolation

Both living with someone else and being socially isolated have been associated with higher elder abuse rates. These seemingly contradictory findings may turn out to be related in that abusers who live with the elder have more opportunity to abuse and yet may be isolated from the larger community themselves or may seek to isolate the elders from others so that the abuse is not discovered. Further research needs to be done to explore the relationship between these factors.

Other Theories

Many other theories about elder abuse have been developed. Few, unfortunately, have been tested adequately enough to definitively say whether they raise the risk of elder abuse or not. It is possible each of the following theories will ultimately be shown to account for a small percentage of elder abuse cases.

  • Caregiver stress. This commonly-stated theory holds that well-intentioned caregivers are so overwhelmed by the burden of caring for dependent elders that they end up losing it and striking out, neglecting, or otherwise harming the elder. Much of the small amount of research that has been done has shown that few cases fit this model.
  • Personal characteristics of the elder. Theories that fall under this umbrella hold that dementia, disruptive behaviors, problematic personality traits, and significant needs for assistance may all raise an elder’s risk of being abused. Research on these possibilities has produced contradictory or unclear conclusions.
  • Cycle of violence. Some theorists hold that domestic violence is a learned problem-solving behavior transmitted from one generation to the next. This theory seems well established in cases of domestic violence and child abuse, but no research to date has shown that it is a cause of elder abuse.

Link to HHS website
Dept. of Health and Human Services

Last Modified: 9/21/2011 10:42:49 AM 
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