Elder Abuse

The phenomenon known as elder abuse first appeared in the British scientific literature in 1975 (Burston) to describe the physical abuse of an elderly dependent person by a caregiving family member. In the years that followed, the definition expanded to include acts of commission (physical, psychological, and financial abuse) and omission (neglect) that result in harm to a person sixty-five years (in some states, sixty years) or older by a relative or a person with whom the elder has a trusting relationship. Self-neglect and self-abuse typically are included under broad conceptualizations of elder abuse. They refer to neglectful or abusive behaviors of older persons directed at themselves that threaten their own health or safety.

Beginning in the mid-1980s the meaning attached to elder abuse expanded further to reflect a criminalization of the phenomenon. Accordingly, there evolved interest in such areas as sexual assault in later life, battered older women, and fraud and scams (e.g., Ramsey-Klawsnik; Harris; Tueth). Likewise, since the 1990s there has been a resurgence of attention given to elder abuse in institutions, particularly nursing facilities. Exposure of fires and inadequate care in these settings during the 1970s fueled the enactment of federal legislation to protect residents. Investigations of resident conditions led to the identification of additional institutional elder abuse forms, like violation of rights, thefts, and examples of covert abuse (e.g., Meddaugh; Payne and Kovic; Harris and Benson). Finally, international perspectives on elder abuse resulted in the United Nations (2002) World Assembly on Aging's delineation of still more abuse forms. Included among them are variations emanating out of social conditions in individual countries, like systemic abuse as well as political violence and armed conflict.

Throughout this thirty-year period of problem recognition and definition expansion, there has been concern about the lack of universally accepted definitions and forms of elder abuse evident in either research or state laws. The most notable attempts to standardize both are found in research conducted by Margaret Hudson and her associates (Hudson, 1991; Hudson and Carlson, 1999; Hudson et al., 2000). Using a national panel of elder abuse experts, Hudson developed a five-level elder abuse taxonomy with eleven related definitions. Subsequent work compared the experts' perceptions to public perceptions across cultures, the results suggesting differences between cultural groups in defining and responding to elder abuse. Other studies have yielded similar findings (Tatara, 1997, 1999). For example, Georgia Anetzberger, Jill Korbin, and Susan Tomita (1996) focused on four ethnic groups in Ohio and Washington and discovered that the worst thing family members could do to an elderly person was psychological neglect, according to European-American and Puerto Rican subjects, and psychological abuse, according to Japanese-American and African-American subjects. Only African Americans listed financial abuse or exploitation among the worst things. Moreover, response to elder abuse varied by ethnic group. European-Americans and African Americans typically would contact an agency serving elders, Japanese Americans would talk to family or friends, and Puerto Ricans would contact the proper authorities.

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