The growing epidemic of elder abuse

Abuse against older adults is a public-health issue that impacts seniors, their families and communities across the United States. The size of the older-adult population is expected to nearly double in the next 30 years. These demographic shifts mean that the number of people potentially affected by elder abuse is ever-growing.

A 2015 research report in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that roughly 10 percent of older adults had been victims of elder abuse.

Elder abuse takes many forms, including physical abuse, psychological or verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation and neglect. Physical abuse and neglect can lead to severe health issues and earlier mortality. Psychological and emotional abuse can cause depression and worsen isolation. Financial abuse causes economic losses for older adults and their families.

Yet, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, only one in 14 incidents of abuse perpetrated against seniors ever gets reported. The perpetrators are often someone upon whom the victim is dependent — such as a family member or caregiver. The victim may not have the means of reporting their mistreatment or may face retribution for doing so. Others refrain from reporting their abuse out of shame or embarrassment. When the abuse is perpetrated by a family member, some victims may forgo reporting the incident, as they don’t want a family member to get in trouble.

LGBT older adults may face the added barrier to reporting their abuse if it relates to their sexual orientation or gender identity. In a national survey of LGBT older adults published by the Movement Advancement Project, 8.3 percent of respondents reported being abused and neglected by a caretaker because of homophobia or transphobia. In cases where reporting this abuse would “out” the individual as LGBT, some victims may choose to remain silent. Additionally, LGBT people who have experienced mistreatment by law enforcement will understandably be hesitant to call the police.

LGBT people face increased risk of elder abuse given that they experience high rates of isolation. Low social support has been found to significantly increase the risk of virtually all forms of elder mistreatment. Abuse perpetrated against individuals who are isolated may go unnoticed if the victim does not have other people with whom they regularly interact. If the perpetrator is the senior’s only source of support, the victim will be unlikely or unable to report the abuse.

Dementia, or other forms of cognitive decline, is also a strong risk factor for abuse. A 2009 report from the American Society on Aging suggested that close to 50 percent of people with dementia experience some form of abuse. They are also less likely to report the abuse, due to confusion about the events that took place or of how to file a report.
There still exists a significant lack of research on elder abuse. Elder abuse within LGBT communities is a particular area needing much greater research. Further programming that educates communities about identifying and reporting elder abuse is another important aspect of preventing abuse and connecting victims with the resources they need.

In Philadelphia, Older Adult Protective Services operates through the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) and can be contacted through the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. Older adults outside Philadelphia should report elder abuse through their county’s Area Agency on Aging (to find your Area Agency on Aging, visit the Elder Care Locator at or call 800-677-1116). All Area Agencies on Aging receive reports 24 hours a day and are responsible to investigate them within 72 hours. Reports can be filed anonymously, and the law protects those reporting from retaliation or liability.

David Griffith is the director of programs and outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To learn more about the initiative and upcoming programs for LGBT older adults, visit

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