Abuse in later life (ALL) is a prevalent form of abuse in the U.S. It brings attention to the connection between domestic violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse, and targets populations starting at age 50 who start to face unique financial barriers that reduce their ability to leave an abusive living situation (NCALL, 2020).
ALL and elder abuse are particularly dangerous because there is a higher chance of admittance to a long term care facility. Older adults who experience abuse may face a longer and difficult recovery process, and have a 300% higher risk of death compared to those who don’t experience ALL. Five million older adults are abused annually, however most cases are unreported (only 15.5% of all elder sexual abuse is reported). For every case of elder abuse that is reported, 23 cases go unreported (NCOA, 2020). Although we anticipate that relationships with older adults are based in truth, safety, care, and compassion, the majority of perpetrators in these cases are intimate partners or family members and take place in the community.
Many factors create a disconnect between older adults and domestic violence and sexual assault services. These include individual barriers such as stigma and shame, guilt, fear, and physical and cognitive limitations. On a larger scale, an important barrier to recognize is ageism (stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of age). Ageism creates unsafe environments for older adults by reducing access to services and creates unwelcoming spaces where older adults may feel devalued, unimportant, and invisible. Public misconceptions about ALL is damaging because it hinders the ability to create effective services, programs and policies. Overall, ageism allows ALL to exist in society as easily as it does (NCALL, 2020).
Older adults often experience vulnerabilities that put them at a higher risk for abuse such as social isolation and physical and cognitive impairments. However, these factors can influence stereotypes that older adults are passive, vulnerable, and dependent which creates a paternalist society that denies older adults’ agency and autonomy over their lives and decisions. Ageism causes society to believe that ALL is inevitable because it is based on the individual actions of those involved, rather than the structures and systems that allow ALL to occur. In turn, society tends to believe that ALL and elder abuse is impossible to stop, which ends up creating environments for abuse to thrive (Frameworks, 2020).
To combat Ageism and ALL, we can reframe our thinking and stereotypes about older adults as well as how we view ALL and elder abuse. It’s important to recognize that older adults are contributing members of society, visible, and of value. Education and awareness should highlight structural solutions, along with individual solutions, to help us think deeper and broader about how we can change the trends of ALL (Frameworks, 2020). Finally, because we are a youth focused culture, we ask older adults to use services and resources that are often created without their input, resulting in even further isolation. The most important way we can combat institutionalized ageism and improve care and services for those who experience ALL and elder abuse is to engage diverse older adults in the program and policy development process.