In recent years, the United Nations has increased the number of “international days” which it observes. Many of these observances have gained global momentum and support, such International Women’s Day (March 8) and World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), which serve educational and advocacy goals.
On June 15, the United Nations observes the less publicized World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, focusing attention on the hidden tragedy of abuse, neglect and exploitation of elderly people throughout the world. While this year’s theme focuses specifically on financial abuse, the sad reality is that the elderly face a broad array of exploitation that includes physical, medical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse.
The perpetrators include caregivers, strangers and, most tragically, family and friends. A recent study has shown that perpetrators are more likely to be the spouses and adult children of victims rather than strangers. This means the specific abuse is compounded by the violation of profound trust.
According to the Justice Department, 10 percent of seniors are abused each year, with only 1 out of every 23 cases reported. The most likely victims are women, persons with cognitive impairments, persons without relatives, those with disabilities and those who are ill-housed, poor, physically weak or socially isolated.
The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that the study of elder abuse “lags almost two decades behind” parallel research about child abuse and domestic violence. Why? Elder abuse targets those who are vulnerable – and those who are most vulnerable are sometimes unwilling or often unable to seek help. Even those who are capable of seeking help have compelling reasons not to. Love for a caregiver or embarrassment about the situation can make reporting difficult. Moreover, elders who do report abuse are more likely to be placed in nursing homes. While our society is getting more adept at identifying, preventing and addressing abuse for other demographic groups, the abused elderly remain at great risk because they are often voiceless.
Without further action, these problems may be exacerbated in the years to come. The Census Bureau reports that in 2012, the U.S. population age 65 or older was 40.3 million. With the aging baby boomers, this figure is expected to nearly double by 2050. The population age 85 and over is expected to grow from 5 million to 18 million in that same timeframe.
This pattern is reflected worldwide. According to the United Nations, the growth of the elderly population will be most pronounced in economically developing nations, and elder abuse is described as “one of the least investigated types of violence.”
Calling attention to abuse and neglect of anyone is a worthy undertaking, particularly when victims are unable to advocate for themselves. The United Nations Mission Statement for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day proposes framing discussion of such abuse in the human rights context and urging nations to “take concrete action,” “develop specific measures,” and “share good practices of legislative initiatives and programmatic interventions.” There are certainly many places in which such initiatives are warranted and seriously overdue.
The United States already has a good deal of legislation in place addressing elder abuse on the federal, state and local levels. Mandatory reporting statutes of some form are nearly universal; criminal statutes condemn those activities that would constitute such abuse, and the lengthy intricate regulations of health care facilities indicate that legal protections already exist.
Yet in spite of this, elder abuse remains a serious problem in the United States. Greater compliance with these statutes, adequate training of those charged with reporting and responding to elder abuse and realistic funding devoted to detecting and pursuing elder abuse cases all remain necessary. It is also unclear whether enforcement is pursued as aggressively for elderly, incapacitated and anonymous victims as it is for younger or more vocal victims.
Elder Abuse Awareness Day invites us to ask some difficult questions about how we treat and think about the elderly. We should wonder why so many elderly people live their last years alone and are often socially isolated; why family, friends and caregivers are counted among their abusers; and how to reinvigorate mediating institutions such as extended families, religious communities, neighborhood organizations and social fraternities, which can be sources of contact and support.
We should also consider how our national and private conversations about assisted suicide may be contributing to the belief that a life that is not young, active and strong is a burden, and whether we take a utilitarian view of each other that devalues the importance of those whose lives are no longer as active as they once were. For elderly abuse victims facing suffering and fear in their last days, a compassionate response can’t come soon enough.
International Elder Abuse Awareness Day may be the impetus to ask these questions. However, if the day passes with a focus overly centered on law rather than on our culture, our families, and our priorities, it will fail to bring about the meaningful change that is its purpose and the compassionate response that cannot come soon enough for elderly abuse victims.
Silecchia is a professor of law at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.