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6 Myths About Elder Abuse

There are many misconceptions about how, why and how often abuse occurs

By Emily Gurnon

What do you think of when you hear the term elder abuse? Maybe you get an image of an older woman developing bedsores from neglect in a nursing home. Or a phone scammer taking advantage of a man with dementia. Maybe you assume the people who harm older adults are caregivers who’ve been stressed to the breaking point.

While all of those scenarios can and do occur, they don’t represent the complex range and severity of abuse that older adults suffer nationwide.

Here are six common myths about elder abuse:

Myth No. 1: Most elder abuse occurs in nursing homes
Fact: Most elder abuse occurs at home, with family members and other loved ones as the perpetrators.

“The sad reality is in most cases it's someone they know and trust,” said Betsey Crimmins, senior attorney in the elder, health and disability unit of Greater Boston Legal Services. “In almost all the cases …  it's not some stranger calling from Florida. It's a grandson, niece, daughter, pastor in a church. People they put their trust in to not take advantage and harm them.”

Paul Greenwood, head of the elder abuse prosecution unit of the San Diego District Attorney's office, agreed. When people he meet asks what he does for a living, “they're almost shocked when I say a lot of my time is spent prosecuting sons who beat up their mothers or kill their mothers,” said Greenwood, whose office has handled about 350 cases so far this year.  

Physical elder abuse in families often starts after the perpetrator steals money or possessions from the older adult to feed a gambling or drug habit, Greenwood said. “And once it gets discovered by the victim, there's a confrontation, and that's when the physical altercations start,” he noted.

Myth No. 2: If an older person is being abused physically, it will be obvious.

Fact: Even physical abuse may be invisible.

“People can twist somebody's arm or something and leave no marks,” said Kate Wilber, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, whose research has focused in part on elder abuse.

Another problem: some people may interpret bruises and other physical signs as the result of age-related issues, such as an increased risk of falls. Or an older adult who is being denied food may lose weight, but loved ones and even doctors may assume that’s due to other physical ailments..

Myth No. 3: Educated people don’t fall for scams.

Fact: Con artists know how to fool even smart people.

And too often, older adults of all education levels are the target of scams — whether over the telephone, by bogus “repair” people knocking on their doors or through the mail. Typical frauds include callers who say the older adults owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and if they don’t pay, they will be arrested. Others are perpetrated through dating websites. And in the so-called grandparents scam, a caller impersonates a young relative and claims to need financial help to get out of jail overseas, for instance.

“The stereotype [of the scam victim] is an older, uneducated woman who maybe has some dementia,” said Wilber. One colleague’s research found that people with those characteristics are, in fact, defrauded. But the researcher also found "younger, highly educated men” are common victims, a cohort AARP once grouped in a survey respondents' category it called “You Can’t Fool Me.” (AARP wrote in a statement to the Senate Committee on Aging: “Perhaps because of their inaccurate self-perception as someone who can't be fooled, they think they are better protected against fraud than they really are.“)

Said Wilber: “The perpetrators know how to get in there and make those younger men feel like they're winning, and then they get them.”

Crimmins said one reason why older people fall victim to the grandparent scam, in particular, is that it plays on their emotions.

“A lot of those kinds of scams don't go through people's brains, they go right through their hearts,” she said. “People who fall for that particular scam or scams that they think the safety of their family is in jeopardy — that has nothing to do with educational level or even cognitive awareness. It's all about fear: something bad's happening to someone I care about.”

Myth No. 4: If older people say they are not being abused, it didn’t happen.

Fact: Many elder abuse victims decide not to tell anyone what happened to them, experts say.

Wilber noted that many don’t report the abuse because they are afraid of getting a loved one in trouble. Some don’t report the truth because they worry the alternative — such as going to a nursing home — would be worse. “That's a huge fear that people have,” Wilber said. “It's kind of in the ozone that if you report and they come in and investigate and find out you're vulnerable, then you get a one-way ticket to a facility.”

People may also be ashamed and blame themselves. Said Wilber: “It's like, how could I have let this happen?”

Greenwood added that abusers may threaten a move to the nursing home or other harm to the victim if the person tells anyone else about being hurt.


Myth No. 5: Elder abuse is no big deal.

Fact: One in 10 older adults in the U.S. is abused, according to the 2010 National Elder Mistreatment Study. Wilber and several colleagues published another study on how common elder abuse is, calling it “a serious human rights violation that requires urgent action.” Elder abuse also can have serious health consequences for victims, including increased risk of disease, death, institutionalization and hospital admission, their study said.

Greenwood pointed out that child abuse and domestic violence are widely recognized as grave concerns, for good reason. Yet far fewer resources are devoted to prosecuting and preventing elder abuse.

“It's illogical, it makes no sense,” he said. “It sends a message that we value children much more than seniors, or we decide that there's more of a need for children to be protected than seniors. Either way, I think it’s an outrage.”

Crimmins believes ageism is one of the root causes of elder abuse. Younger people may assume, “Of course he's depressed — he's 80!" she said. Or they may think that older people don’t recover from illnesses, so providing help is futile. Some believe that resources should not be spent on the old.

“I definitely think that's one of the views, and it's really sad,” Crimmins said.

Myth No. 6: Caregivers who abuse do so because they are stressed.

Fact: Caregiver stress is real. But blaming elder abuse on stress shifts the responsibility away from the abuser, experts say.

“We all know that taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's [in particular] is probably one of the most taxing, most difficult, frustrating duties you can do,” Greenwood said. “There are instances where somebody has lost it and has overreacted.” But in the typical elder abuse case he sees, the abuser is dependent on an older parent or other relative, often for the roof over his or her head — though the abuser may claim he or she is providing care.

In addition, the vast majority of family caregivers do not abuse their loved ones.

Hidden No More

Those who work with, and study, abused older adults say that more must be done to bring the issue to the public’s attention.

“I'm unfortunately here to tell you, as lots of other advocates would, that it happens,” Crimmins said. “And it's pretty grim.”

With large numbers of boomers moving into old age and living longer than previous generations did, we will see many more vulnerable people living in our neighborhoods, Crimmins said. And we need to help ensure both their independence and their safety.

“It's a conversation that's really not being had on a national level right now,” she said.

Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. Her stories include a series of articles on guardianship abuse that was funded by the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program. She previously spent 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul. Reach her through her website. Read More
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