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Elder Mistreatment and the Rise of Ageism

Recognize and Respond to Links, Signs, and Risks

During the past two years, we have heard a lot about protecting our elders. Public health experts directed older adults to stay home to stay safe. While social distancing may have helped prevent the spread of disease, it did not guarantee one’s safety. In fact, the pandemic has fueled an increase in elder abuse. 

Elder mistreatment manifests in multiple forms that frequently occur at once. It’s also undercounted, with as many as one in twenty-four cases never reported. When you read such a staggering statistic, you wonder what you can do to address it. First, you have to ask why elder abuse is on the rise. Often the culprit is ageism. It is hard to deny the prevalence of ageism in our society. You can find it via advertisements touting the latest lotions and potions to combat the signs of aging. You read its language in birthday cards that talk about being over the hill. You hear it when a friend says “she looks great,” and then adds, “for her age.” Wait, that last one sounds like a compliment. It might, until you realize what they’re saying is that the norm for that age – whatever that might be – is far from great. 

You may be asking yourself what in the world an ad for age-defying lotions and fillers has to do with elder mistreatment. The truth is we make a lot of assumptions about aging, and the majority of them involve an expectation of decline. For many, aging automatically equals bad. After all, if aging is good, why would you need to buy an anti-aging cream? 

Link Between Ageism and Mistreatment

Holding these ageist beliefs can have dangerous consequences, especially when we misinterpret signs of abuse in a friend or family member as signs of aging. That may mean excusing bruises because you assume they are a result of a medication. It may lead to dismissing an older adult’s recollection of an abusive incident, blaming cognitive impairment that you associate with the aging process. This is not to say some medications don’t cause people to bruise more easily or that older adults don’t experience cognitive decline. They do, but that can’t be what we set as our default when we think about aging or getting older. When we do, we lose sight of the whole person. And we won’t be able see when someone needs our help the most. 

Gerontologists like to say that when you meet one old person, you’ve met one old person. This means older adults are an extremely diverse population, making it impossible to use a one-size-fits-all approach to keeping them safe. We need a coordinated community response to make sure we are creating safeguards that both address and prevent abuse and mistreatment, at any age and at every age. 

So, what can you do? You can start by raising your awareness of ageist tendencies and about elder mistreatment and its risk factors, you can report any suspected abuse to your local adult protective services office, and you can commit to being part of that community response. 

Signs of Elder Mistreatment

If you have relationships with older adults, there are signs you should always be on the lookout for to help them stay safe. 

• Physical: bruises, welts, and untreated pressure ulcers

• Emotional/psychological: unusual changes in sleep or behavior, isolation from friends and family, and withdrawal from typical activities

• Financial exploitation: unpaid bills, sudden changes to will or other legal documents, unusual changes in bank account or money management 

• Neglect: dirtiness, poor nutrition, over/under medication, lack of needs being met for medical aides (glasses, hearing aids, walkers, etc.) 

Common Risk Factors

Whether the older adults you encounter are family members, neighbors, friends, or acquaintances, being aware of risk factors for elder mistreatment will help you be a positive force in your community.

• Limited social support

• Dementia

• Experience of previous traumatic events

• Disability

• Sexual orientation or gender

• Poverty

Supporting and Reporting 

To report suspected financial exploitation or other kinds of abuse of the elderly or adults with a disability, call your local department of social services or the Virginia Department of Social Services’ 24-hour, toll-free Adult Protective Services Hotline at (888) 832-3858. To learn more about the APS response and services available, visit Virginia Adult Protective Services at 

Courtney O’Hara is director of the “Abuse in Later Life Project” at VCU’s Virginia Center on Aging. When she’s not developing curriculum or facilitating multidisciplinary teams, she can be found running after her two young daughters and the family’s newest member, a puppy named Winnie.
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