As we continue to address significant challenges presented by COVID-19 we are faced with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’ call for measures to address a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” connected with shelter-in-place, quarantine and curfew measures in response to the pandemic. Simultaneously we continue to read about the tremendous impact this virus is having on older and vulnerable adults, paying particular attention to the rapidity of transmission possible within congregate living settings.
It is important to remember that isolated older victims of violence are also at particular risk of harm from abuse in our current context, and are at additional risk of invisibility as negative outcomes from this pandemic compound. Older adults already report experiences of abuse, sexual assault, neglect and financial exploitation at alarming rates: 1 in 10 older adults reported an experience of elder abuse in a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and a cognitive impairment increases this risk. One study suggests older adults with dementia have a 50 percent chance of experiencing elder abuse.
These statistics are unacceptable as they stand, but without question represent only a fraction of the elder abuse happening in our communities. A comprehensive study from New York estimates that only 1 in every 24 instances of abuse, neglect, sexual assault or exploitation even gets reported at all. Consider the impact comprehensive reporting would have on the prevalence data available. It doesn’t bode well: Our system has buckled under the strain of profoundly underreported and under recognized harm.
Perpetrators of harm against older adults are most likely to be the adult children or spouse of a victim, placing this type of elder abuse directly within the realm of domestic violence. When older adults experience violence at the hands of someone they love, reporting barriers abound: fear, shame, a belief that an experience of violence is somehow deserved or earned over life-long relationships, uncertainty about how get help or achieve safety, language barriers, and fear that institutionalization and loss of self-determination are inevitable outcomes of reporting. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults remaining at home are further discouraged from seeking safety as they are told to shelter in place and congregate living settings are perceived as locations where there is high risk of contracting the virus. Furthermore, traditional domestic violence shelters may not be able to meet older adults’ needs.
These frightening realities for older victims of violence living in our communities are exacerbated by negative outcomes associated with experiences of elder abuse. Older adults who experience abuse suffer from increased susceptibility to new illnesses and exacerbation of pre-existing health conditions; are three times likelier to be hospitalized; and have a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who had not been abused.
Ageism has impacts here, too. Pervasive cultural ageism prevents us from seeing older adults as agents of change, contributors to solutions, and as subjects in their own lives; instead emphasizing aging as a process of decline and viewing older adults as objects or recipients of care and services. This is a false view.
In the face of significant age-related demographic change, Minnesota is in a position to lead in our responses to older victims of abuse. We can robustly fund abuse prevention and direct resources toward evidence-based interventions. We can remind the older adults in our lives and communities that we care about them, and that shelter-in-place does not mean an older adult has to stay in an unsafe situation. Advocacy, shelter services, law enforcement and adult protection are open and available. We cannot allow COVID-19 to further silence, isolate or victimize those who are already at increased risk for harm.
Marit Anne Peterson is education director at the Minnesota Elder Justice Center in St. Paul.
Minnesota Elder Justice Center: 651-440-9305 (advocacy and support)
Day One Crisis Line: 1-866-223-1111 (shelter and crisis resources, advocacy and support)
Adult Protective Services – Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center (MAARC): 1-844-880-1574 (to report suspected abuse, neglect or financial exploitation)
Office of the Ombudsman for Long Term Care: 1-800-657-3591 (advocacy and support for those receiving long term care services)
Senior LinkAge Line: 1-800-333-2433 (general resource for older adults seeking information on a wide range of subjects)
Statistics and Data: National Center on Elder Abuse
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