More Than Wife Abuse That Has Gone Old: A Conceptual Model for Violence against the Aged in Canada and the US

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On December 16, 1991, the United Nations (UN) passed resolution 46/91 to encourage the governments of the world to incorporate principals of independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment, and dignity for their aging citizens. The goal was to 'add life to the years that have been added to life' due to improved hygiene, control of infectious diseases and reduction of premature deaths (Seniors Resource, 2005). Despite the UN call for dignity for all aging populations, one of the most perplexing crimes of our time is violence against the elderly. Although people at any age and within any life cycle may be subjected to abuse, the elderly (and very young children) are exceptionally vulnerable for abuse and violence. Moreover, the nature and consequences of abuse will be different depending on the stage of life one is at, again, negatively affecting the aged (and the young) disproportionately.

Types of Abuse

Violence against the aged can be divided into five types: 1. Psychological, 2. Physical, 3. Sexual, 4. Economic, and 5. Neglect. However, one should keep in mind that these clear distinctions are for analytical purposes only, since the elderly who are abused are most likely to simultaneously experience more than one kind (McDonald, Collins & Dergal, 2006; Petterson & Podnieks, 1995; Spencer, 1995).

Psychological abuse (2) includes words, acts or gestures that demean, dehumanize, intimidate or threaten older adults (Department of Justice, 2007). Insulting the elderly, incessantly raising the issue of death with them, socially isolating them, and ordering them around and not allowing them to make decisions that they are capable of making are also part of psychological abuse. Putting down their spiritual or religious beliefs and practices, forcing the elderly to refrain from participating in the spiritual/religious ceremonies of their choice, or forcing them to participate in ceremonies they do not believe in are also considered to be abusive. In the long run, psychological abuse reduces the self-worth of the victims, and robs them of enjoyment of life and will to live (APA-Online, 2008; Canada's Aging Population, 2002; Statistics Canada, 2005).

Physical abuse consists of intentional acts to cause pain or injury. Beating, burning or scalding, pushing, shoving, hitting and slapping are the most common forms of physical abuse (Canada's Aging Population, 2002; Department of Justice, 2007). For the elderly, tying them to heavy furniture, forcibly restraining them, locking them up or confining them to a room, forcing them to remain in beds, chairs or bathrooms are also forms of physical abuse (Department of Justice, 2007). Because of the frail condition of a large proportion of the elderly, physical abuse may take a higher toll on them, even when the used force is not extreme. For example, a strong shove may break a bone, and a broken bone in the elderly may be a cause for death. Younger people's bodies are not only more resilient against breakage, but also heal with fewer complications.

Of course, the ultimate extreme of physical abuse is lethal violence. In Canada, over one half (53%) of homicides against older women and one quarter of those against older men are committed by their spouses or ex-spouses (Statistics Canada, 1999). Nearly half (47%) of men who kill their wives also end up taking their own lives (Statistics Canada, 2003). Shultz (2006) and Contenta (2007) argue that murder-suicides reflect controlling and possessive attempts of the elderly (mostly husbands) over their partner's life and death, and are not acts of compassion.

Sexual abuse of elders is a type of abuse that makes the society cringe. We do not like to associate 'sexuality' with advancing ages, even when it is consensual. Moreover, we do not often believe that people who are younger and healthier would take advantage of the elderly in such perverted ways. This social discomfort with sexual abuse of the elderly often blinds us to its occurrence. …