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How Does Ageism in Our Culture Contribute to Elder Abuse?



One out of every 10 Americans over the age of 65 experience some form of elder abuse. Take a look at some of these sobering statistics from the National Center on Elder Abuse:

  • Nursing homes can be dangerous places. About 44 percent of nursing home residents report being abused, and 95 percent report seeing another nursing home resident abused.
  • Abused elders face dying sooner. Elder abuse increases a senior’s risk of early death by a factor of three.
  • Elders with dementia suffer the most abuse. Approximately 47 percent of elderly people with dementia are subject to elder abuse.
  • Financial exploitation is a form of abuse. Elders self-report major financial exploitation at a rate of 41 per 1,000. Financial loss by victims of financial exploitation totals almost $3 billion per year.
  • Elder abuse is costly. The American healthcare system spends an added $5.3 billion yearly to treat violent injuries to elderly people.

Many sociologists argue that to stop elder abuse, Americans need to re-examine their attitudes toward the elderly. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development, argues that ageism and elder abuse often go hand-in-hand.

Conflicting Attitudes Toward the Elderly

Future human services managers in Master of Human Services (MHS) programs often study the conflicting ways that younger Americans view the elderly. In the media, senior stereotypes range from buffoon-like old people who constantly cause trouble, such as Grandpa Burns on “The Simpsons,” to other-worldly sages like those portrayed by Morgan Freeman. Americans assume that programs like Social Security have eliminated poverty among older Americans, and they envision seniors as happy retirees enjoying sunny Florida beaches.

Simultaneously, Americans have low expectations for old age. They view older Americans as frail and sick and their needs as a national budget drain. Americans also assume that getting older brings certain inevitable conditions including loneliness, disability, and unhappiness. Because they assume these are natural conditions of aging, they feel that attempts to address these problems are useless. If seniors simply resign themselves to misery, then society doesn’t have to take responsibility for elder abuse.

Age Segregation

In a recent interview given in a New York City Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) podcast, Pillemer pointed out that an individual is more likely to have a friend of another race than have a friend that is either 10 years older or 10 years younger. In fact, few younger people interact with elderly people outside of their own families. Whether or not Americans seek to segregate themselves by age, these demarcation lines are a fact of life, and they often desensitize people to the reality of elder abuse.

The NYCEAC also reports that age prejudice against the elderly can cause poor memory performance and high-stress levels, which can make seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse. Most abuse occurs not at the hands of caregivers but from family members including adult children and spouses. Family members who resent caregiving, who suffer from mental illness, or who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol are significantly more likely to abuse an elderly family member.


After working in gerontology for three decades and seeing the worst that life’s third act had to offer, Pillemer decided to reframe the conversation by focusing not on the misery of the elderly but on their value as a societal resource. He has created The Legacy Project at Cornell University and has also published a book entitled, “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice From the Wisest Americans.”

Also, NYCEAC, in partnership with Pillemer, has created the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project. The internships pair undergraduates with older Americans, allowing the undergraduates to conduct Legacy Project-like interviews. While they develop caring relationships with older Americans, interns receive elder abuse training and attend case management meetings. Both projects try to eliminate age segregation by helping younger Americans realize the value of building relationships with older citizens.

Spending time with thriving seniors can provide human services workers with a welcome respite from stress. It can help them to remember why they’re working to eliminate abuse. America’s senior population has survived the war, economic catastrophe, and countless other crises. They deserve care, respect, and safety throughout their golden years.