What is elder abuse? The United States Department of Health and Human Services defines it as “any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult.”¹

A pretty broad definition, but perhaps rightly so. Many times, when we hear the word “abuse”, we think of physical harm – the negative effects that are visible on the victim. But what about the effects of abuse that we can’t so easily see? Abuse might be verbal, and go on behind closed doors. It might be sexual, and the victim doesn’t report it because the topic seems so taboo. Often when it’s financial, the effects of the abuse aren’t felt by the victim until years down the road when his or her accounts have finally bled dry.

In 2011, Lifespan of Greater Rochester, Inc., Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University, and the New York City Department for the Aging published a report titled Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, which I will refer to in this post as the “Study”. The Study involved surveying 4156 residents of New York State over the age of 60 who were living in the community, either independently or with a caregiver, but not in a facility such as a nursing home or other long term care center, regarding incidences of elder abuse. Elder abuse events, for purposes of the Study, fell into one of four categories: neglect by a responsible caregiver, financial exploitation, emotional abuse, and physical/sexual abuse. In most basic terms, the goal of the Study was to compare the number of elder abuse events reported by respondents, and the number of elder abuse cases served by responsible agencies and programs in the state, in order to estimate a rate of under-reporting. The survey was conducted in 2009, and it revealed that, at the time, 141 out of every 1,000 older New Yorkers surveyed had experienced some form of elder abuse since turning 60. In just the one year preceding the survey, that rate was 76 out of every 1,000.

So how many victims are we talking? The Study offers up some census data. The 2009 New York State population estimate was over 19.5 million people, and approximately 3.5 million (~17.9%) of those were over age 60. If the survey shows 141 of every 1,000 respondents has experienced an abuse event, we are talking about 493,500 (141 x 3,500,000/1,000) potential victims statewide. And that was in 2009. If you’re even moderately aware of the changing demographics in this country, you know that thanks to the baby boomers, the aging population is growing fast. I took a peek at the United States Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder for the most recent year published. The New York State total population estimate for 2013 was still 19.5 million, with 19.2% (3.7 million) of that population over age 60. Using the same math, we’re up to more than a half million victims. What would today’s numbers look like? The next census is scheduled for 2020, so we will have to wait and see.

¹ National Center on Law and Elder Rights