Addressing the Causes of Elder Abuse

A Critical Component to Aging Health Policy

By David Thomason, PhD, Public Administration Department,  Social and Behavioral Sciences 

There are two forces propelling aging issues to the forefront of global public health. First, thanks to the advances in medicine, economic means, and access to sustainable agriculture, we are seeing a rising life expectancy. In 1950, the average global life expectancy was 48 years old. Today, the average global life expectancy is 68 years old.  Second, much of the world is experiencing zero or negative population growth. European nations, along with Japan, are experiencing zero or negative population growth.  By some estimates, China is expected to reach zero population growth by 2030. The World Health Organization, in a recent report on aging, projected that those 60 and over worldwide will double, from currently 600 million to 1.2 billion by 2025 (World Health Organization, “Global Health and Aging,” 2 January, 2012).

Life expectancy increases and a worldwide stabilizing trend in growth are leading to an aging global population. In the United States, for example, the first of the Baby Boomer generation are reaching age 65. According to the Pew Research Center, 10,000 Baby Boomers will reach age 65 each day for the next 19 years.  Japan’s Emperor Akihito, reflecting on his own 79th birthday, remarked that “one of the social issues of concern is the rapidly aging population.” Across the globe, the aging trend is adding additional pressure on health care access and delivery, an older workforce, and pressure on affordable housing options.

Critical to the increased aging population is a rise in elderly abuse. Elder abuse has arguably reached an epidemic level both in the United States and globally. Estimates by National Center on Elder Abuse are that as many as 10 percent of all elders in the United States experience some physical abuse, with over 90 person of the abuse by family members of the elderly (National Center on Elder Abuse,  “Fact Sheet,” 2005). Physical, mental, emotional, and financial abuse can occur in a variety of settings. But, the primary setting for the abuse is in the home.

Clearly, the issue deserves careful attention by policymakers. Where should policymakers begin to address the causes of this epidemic? How can policymakers reduce the likelihood of elder abuse? Let me suggest three policy approaches that could lead to a safer environment for our aging population.

Policymakers should address the issue of respite care for families caring for an aging person. The strain of caring for someone aging can often take a physical and financial toll on families. In the case of Alzheimer’s, for example, the stress of caring for a family member is a constant struggle. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that one third of family caregivers suffer from some form of depression.  The cost on the family caregiver is also economic (Alzheimer’s Association Report, “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” 28, 2011).

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “the economic value of the unpaid care provided to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias totaled $202.6 billion in 2010.” Such pressure on family members creates a powder keg in the home. Workplace absences, physical exhaustion, and a general sense of isolation can lead to violent outbursts towards the elderly person. Federal and state elected officials are beginning to recognize that investing in a respite care policies can prevent the possible health and safety hazards.  But policymakers should move more rapidly to fund and provide availability for respite care.

Addressing the issues of social discrimination against the aging remains a critical component of abuse. Lawmakers can provide leadership in this problem on at least two levels. First, consider the opportunity of pairing public schools with aging communities. Creating intergenerational ties runs counter to our contemporary loss of social capital.  Robert Putnam, in his work Bowling Alone, argues that this loss of social capital leads to fragmented communities and disconnections between generations.  It also has the potential for creating a general prejudice among generations that do not behave as we want them. Psychologists refer to this as prescriptive prejudice.  The world is built on the perception that youthful is better than elderly. This general perception can lead to demeaning those in older generations and ultimately relegating those in an older generation as less important, opening the door to potential abusive situations.

Defining the role of social services fits within the broader policy goals of addressing elder abuse. Often, lawmakers describe social services in a pejorative light. A misunderstanding among policymakers is that social service spending, particularly Medicaid, is a money pit for public budgeting. This attitude has the potential to create a stigma of avoidance among public policy decisions. Aging policy, for example, has not traditionally been at the forefront of campaigns and elections. Few candidates discuss aging policy, unless it is to highlight the problems of institutional care. What lawmakers overlook in the rhetoric surrounding the cost of social services is the economic investment such programs provide to a community.Aging services is a particularly labor intensive area. Economic multiplier estimates suggest that for every dollar invested in the care of our elderly, the local economy receives an additional 7 dollars. Investing in the care and safety of our elderly, then, not only protects some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but it also creates an economic return for the community.

Policymakers, both nationally and globally, would do well to remember those frail and aging members of our communities. Not only because it is the right thing for human rights, but because it is the right thing to do economically.  The aging boom is just beginning and where we go with our policy decisions in the next several years will be critical to stemming the epidemic of elderly abuse and discrimination.


Alzheimer’s Association Report. “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” 2011

National Center on Elder Abuse,  “Fact Sheet,” 1.  2005. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. “Global Health and Aging.” 2 January, 2012.