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What Is Elder Justice And Why Do We Need It?

The conversation now goes beyond preventing abuse and into promoting justice


(Editor’s note: This story is part of Next Avenue’s month-long focus on elder justice, with support from The John A. Hartford Foundation.)

Right now, the idea of justice is on the minds and hearts of the masses.

Justice is sought for anyone who is wronged. Justice can be defined by an individual and looks differently for everyone. Acts of injustice are seen on large scales against historically marginalized groups: People of color. Indigenous people. Immigrants. People living in poverty. The LGBTQ community. People with disabilities. Women. People of different faiths. And elders.

It’s up to everyone to keep the elders in our communities safe.

Elders are subject to mistreatment and abuse at rates unknown to many. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans over 60 are abused, neglected or exploited. Research estimates that one out of every 10 people age 60 and older are victims of abuse every year. This cruelty, referred to as elder abuse, comes in the form of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse; abandonment and neglect.

The Elder Justice Movement

Laws, movements, organizations and coalitions have come together over the past several decades to address the concern of elder abuse, and now comes a growing movement to go a step even further than preventing elder abuse — and that is promoting elder justice.

In 2010, Congress passed the Elder Justice Act, which formed a special council and advisory board among other commitments. The effectiveness of this piece of legislation has faced criticism from key players in the space. Other elder justice-focused coalitions, educational institutions and advocacy organizations have arisen in places like Los Angeles, Columbus, New York and Minnesota.

“Elder abuse programs are just now starting to get dedicated funding, and it’s still a penny of what goes to other programs,” says Amanda Vickstrom, executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center in St. Paul, Minn. “And the research is not enough. The research we have is good, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture.”

The Minnesota Elder Justice Center was created in 2014 by joining the work of the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project and the Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative. The Center offers victim services, public education, professional training and public policy advocacy.

“Elder justice is really the holistic approach of addressing abuse, neglect, financial exploitation and maltreatment for older adults on the micro and macro level. What type of roadmap and services do we need to reach justice?” says Vickstrom.

Also part of the movement: The Weinberg Center for Elder Justice in the Bronx, N.Y.

The Weinberg Center, within the nursing home Hebrew Home at Riverdale, is the nation’s first temporary elder abuse shelter. It offers victims “a safe, comfortable space to regain their dignity, re-assert control and develop the resilience they need to return to the community.”

Glendalee Olivera is a senior elder justice specialist at The Weinberg Center, where she’s been providing social work to residents for nearly seven years. She describes elder justice as three main things: the ability to face challenges, create opportunities and cause change for older adults.

Justice Is Different for Everyone

Because elder abuse is most often caused by a family member, the justice sought is sensitive, complex and different for every victim.

“When we think about justice, we think about criminal response, and sometimes that’s appropriate and a piece of it. But from older victims, what we hear is: it’s not the only pathway to justice,” says Vickstrom.

Instead of that criminal response, justice might be systems navigation or access to information, Vickstrom says. “Where do I go? Who do I talk to? How do I keep a relationship with my daughter but have the maltreatment stop? How do I stop this scammer but not have my whole family know?”

In Olivera’s practice, she’s found that justice can be processing trauma through counseling or getting assistance in the grueling process of breaking ties with an abusive adult child.

“It’s helping them have a voice in their care,” she says. “A lot of the abuse involves taking away that control. Justice can be finally being able to sleep and not having to worry about being woken up or verbally assaulted. It could mean being able to manage their money again. An older adult getting a new apartment that they get to call their own and start over when they thought their life was over — that’s justice.”

How You Can Help

The elder justice movement begins at the individual level. It’s up to everyone to keep the elders in our communities safe.

“If something doesn’t look or sound right, it’s important to ask and follow up,” says Vickstrom. “You don’t have to have proof or know for sure. It’s OK to ask the questions. It’s OK to talk about it and reach out for help.”

Vickstrom says victims of elder abuse usually don’t identify as victims. “No one wants to think of their child as a perpetrator,” she says. Therefore, Vickstrom suggests these questions to ask that don’t focus on the victim vs. the perpetrator:

  • Do you feel safe at home?
  • Is anybody hurting you?
  • Is anybody taking your money without permission?

“We don’t want to put our nose in other peoples’ business. We say it’s not our problem. But it is our problem,” Vickstrom says.

(If you or someone you know has been the victim of abuse, call Adult Protective Services in your state, a long-term care ombudsman program in your state or reach the Eldercare Locator by phone at 1-800-677-1116).

Grace Birnstengel, writer at Next Avenue in a black shirt and pink background.
By Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel is a reporter, writer and editor for Next Avenue where she focuses on America's diverse experiences of aging. She recently concluded an in-depth series on America's first generation aging with HIV/AIDS.

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