Elder abuse is often more severe for ‘youngest old’

"As the population of older adults in North America nearly doubles over the next 25 years, this problem will just get bigger," says David Burnes. (Credit: iStockphoto)

When older adults live alone with an abuser, they’re up to four times more likely to be mistreated, but a new study suggests another person living in the home can play a protective role to buffer severity.

“Older adults are particularly vulnerable to severe mistreatment when the abuser has unrestricted and uninhibited access to the victim,” says Karl Pillemer, professor of human development and gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College and coauthor of the study.

Research on older adults tends to categorize subjects according to different age groups, including the “youngest old” (ages 60 to 74) and the “oldest old” (ages 85 and up). Surprisingly, the findings show that across each type of elder abuse, it was the “youngest old” who experienced the most severe forms of mistreatment.

“These findings challenge the prevailing belief that the oldest old are more vulnerable to the most severe forms of elder abuse, although we need more research that includes older adults with cognitive impairment and those living in long-term care settings,” says coauthor Mark Lachs, professor of medicine and co-chief of geriatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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“Previous studies on elder abuse have found that approximately one in 10 older adults experience some form of elder abuse,” says lead author David Burnes, assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto. “As the population of older adults in North America nearly doubles over the next 25 years, this problem will just get bigger. Older adults who are abused have shorter lifespans, and are more likely to be hospitalized and experience mental health issues.”

Earlier research has largely explored elder abuse in general yes/no terms, but the new study, published in the journal the Gerontologist, examined different forms of elder abuse along a continuum of severity. “We know that the yes/no characterization of elder abuse does not capture the complex, lived reality of mistreatment or align with the way clinicians examine and intervene on the problem,” Burnes says.

Data for the study came from a large-scale, representative sample of 4,156 cognitively intact, community-dwelling older adults across New York State. Among older adults reporting physical abuse since age 60, more than two-thirds (62 percent) reported being abused in the past year and 11 percent experienced more than 10 physically abusive events in the past year.

Source: University of Toronto