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Home > Research Articles > Why Does Elder Abuse Occur and Who are the Perpetrators?

National Center on Elder Abuse

Monday, March 4, 2002

Why Does Elder Abuse Occur and Who are the Perpetrators? 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 causes researchers say are important. Caregiver Stress Caring for frail older people is a very difficult and stress-provoking task. This is particularly true when older people are mentally or physically impaired, when the caregiver is ill-prepared for the task, or when the needed resources are lacking. Under these circumstances, the increased stress and frustration of a caregiver may lead to abuse or willful neglect. Impairment of Dependent Elder Some researchers have found that elders in poor health are more likely to be abused than those in good health. They have also found that abuse tends to occur when the stress level of the caregiver is heightened as a result of a worsening of the elder's impairment. Cycle of Violence Some families are more prone to violence than others because violence is a learned behavior and is transmitted from one generation to another. In these families, abusive behavior is the normal response to tension or conflict because they have not learned any other ways to respond. Personal Problems of Abusers Researchers have found that abusers of the elderly (typically adult children) tend to have more personal problems than do non-abusers. Adult children who abuse their parents frequently suffer from such problems as mental and emotional disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, and financial difficulty. Because of these problems, these adult children are often dependent on the elders for their support. Abuse in these cases may be an inappropriate response by the children to the sense of their own inadequacies. Who Are the Abusers? More than two-thirds of elder abuse perpetrators are family members of the victims, typically serving in a caregiving role. Please see statistics for more information. Is Elder Abuse a Crime? Depending on the statute of a given state, elder abuse may or may not be a crime. However, most physical, sexual, and financial/material abuses are considered crimes in all states. In addition, depending on the type of the perpetrator's conduct and its consequences for the victims, certain emotional abuse and neglect cases are subject to criminal prosecution. However, self-neglect is not a crime in all jurisdictions, and, in fact, elder abuse laws of some states do not address self-neglect. For Help Regarding Elder Abuse When domestic elder abuse occurs, it can be addressed - if it comes to the attention of authorities. Although each state has a different system to address elder abuse, the following are some of the agencies that have been established by federal, state and local governments to help: Which State and Local Agencies are Helping Victims and Their Families Involved in Elder Abuse? In most states, the APS (Adult Protective Services) agency, typically located within the human sevice agency, is the principal public agency responsible for both investigating reported cases of elder abuse and for providing victims and their families with treatment and protective services. In most jurisdictions, the county departments of social services maintain an APS unit that serves the need of local communities. However, many other public and private agencies and organizations are actively involved in efforts to protect vulnerable older persons from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Some of these agencies include: the state unit on aging; the law enforcement agency (e.g., the police department, the district attorney's office, the court system, the sheriff's department); the medical examiner/coroner's office; hospitals and medical clinics; the state long-term care ombudsman's office; the public health agency; the area agency on aging; the mental health agency; and the facility licensing/certification agency. Depending on the state law governing elder abuse, the exact roles and functions of these agencies vary widely from one jurisdiction to another. Although most APS agencies also handle adult abuse cases (where clients are between 18 and 59 years of age), nearly 70 percent of their caseloads involve elder abuse. The APS community is relatively small compared with the groups working for other human service programs, but it is composed of a few thousand professionals, nationwide. Adult Protective Services In most jurisdictions, either APS, the Area Agency on Aging, or the county Department of Social Services is designated as the agency to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse and neglect. If the investigators find abuse or neglect, they make arrangements for services to help protect the victim.