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Domestic Violence & Elder Abuse: Is There a Difference?

Every day, domestic violence hotlines handle over 20,000 phone calls. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 20 people per minute experience “intimate partner violence.” And, although it isn’t discussed often, elder abuse is another form of domestic violence. In this article, we look at the ways domestic violence and elder abuse impact both individuals and society.

Is it Domestic Violence or Elder Abuse?

To many people, abuse is abuse and what you call it doesn’t matter. The important thing is getting help for the person who is being abused. While that idea works in theory, in practice it doesn’t quite cut it. At least, not if the person being abused needs assistance with medical care, help escaping his or her abuser, or another type of aid.

The Centers for Disease Control considers it elder abuse if the person is aged 60 or older. Anyone trusted by the victim, such as a spouse, adult child, or caregiver, may be the abuser. The CDC defines elder abuse as the “intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.”

There is little difference in how authorities define domestic violence and elder abuse, or in the types of actions they consider abusive (more on that below). The main difference seems to be one of age and in how agencies refer to the person being abused. However, if a husband or wife abused his or her partner throughout their relationship, many states consider that its own category of elder abuse.

Are You a Survivor, or a Victim?

The answer to this question is more than a matter of semantics; it dictates the type of treatment and assistance offered.

Survivor is used for people escaping domestic violence situations. They are considered self-sufficient, capable of advocating for their own needs, and moving toward independence. Offered services may include temporary housing in a shelter and planning to help the survivor escape his or her situation.

Victim is typically used to refer to people who experience elder abuse. The term colors the types of assistance offered to these individuals, as they are generally considered incapable of making decisions about their care. The agency may advise moving into an assisted living facility, or offer respite services to reduce stress in the home. That last item is a holdover from when authorities assumed one cause of elder abuse was the stress of being a full-time caregiver.

domestic violence and elder abuse

What Are the Types of Elder Abuse?

The CDC recognizes five types of elder abuse: emotional (also called psychological), physical, financial, neglect, and sexual.

Emotional abuse is any action that causes fear, mental anguish, or emotional pain and distress. These actions may be physical or verbal and include:

  • Destroying property or beloved objects
  • Humiliating the victim
  • Insulting remarks and name-calling
  • Isolating the victim from friends and family

Physical abuse is any intentional action that results in pain, injury, or illness. Physically abusive actions may include:

  • Burning
  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Pushing
  • Slapping

Financial abuse involves the improper use of the victim’s property, money, government benefits, or other assets to benefit any person other than the victim. This may include:

  • Changing wills and other legal documents
  • Using the person’s credit card without permission
  • Withdrawing money from the person’s account without permission

Neglect occurs when the abuser intentionally ignores the victim’s needs, including:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Clothing
  • Hygiene
  • Medical care
  • Shelter

Sexual abuse is any type of forced or unwanted sexual interaction, including any unwanted sexual contact, not just penetration. It may also include non-contact actions, such as sexual harassment.

Why Is Domestic Violence Considered a Public Health Problem?

A common misconception is that, if the abuse doesn’t happen to you or a loved one, it doesn’t really affect you. In reality, we each pay the price for domestic violence every day. Literally. The CDC estimates that, in a single year, domestic violence costs America $5.8 BILLION.

Over $4 billion of that total is what the country spends for medical and mental healthcare for survivors. Nearly $900 million of the cost is attributed to lost wages and productivity. Finally, the CDC estimates that, in a single year, domestic violence victims murdered by their abuser represent at least $900 million in lost earnings had they lived.

Do those numbers seem high? It may interest you to know that the CDC actually thinks they’ve under estimated these costs, simply because so many of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, these numbers represent only the women abused in a single year. For reference, around 15 percent of all abuse victims are male.

domestic violence and elder abuse

Can We Prevent Elder Abuse?

With education and understanding, we can stop abuse before it ever begins. Learn everything you can and then share it with others. The more people who recognize the signs of elder abuse, the more likely it is someone will report and stop it.

One of the most important things you can do is listen to the older adults in your life. Pay attention to what they experience. Ask questions. Check in regularly, especially if you know they have few friends and family present.

Talk to the caregivers, too. Volunteer to help in whatever ways you can. Organize group supports, such as a rotating schedule for meal delivery, shopping, or other chores. Wherever possible, make sure there’s more than one person acting as a caregiver, including financial assistance and personal care.

Educational Resources to Help Stop Elder Abuse

If you suspect elder abuse, contact Adult Protective Services in your state. You can also check the ElderCareLocator, a site devoted to helping older adults. Other options include:

If you feel that you are in danger, call 911 immediately.

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