Chapter 18

Elderly Victims of Crime

Abstract: This chapter will provide participants with an opportunity to examine the unique problems and needs of elderly crime victims, both in general and based upon specific crime types. A brief overview of the elderly crime victim's perception of crime is provided to place the participant in the mind-set of the elderly victim and his or her need for specialized, sensitive responses from those establishing and providing program services.

Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:

1. Ageism and its impact on society's perception of elderly persons as crime victims in our society.

2. Specialized services that can be implemented by victim assistance personnel to better respond to the needs and problems of the elderly crime victim.

3. The general profile of elder abuse victims and perpetrators.

4. Techniques that can be used to improve communications with elderly victims.

5. Aspects of the impact criminal victimization has on the elderly.

Statistical Overview

(The preceding statistics are derived from the findings of a national study of domestic elder abuse reports conducted by the National Center on Elder Abuse in 1994. Data on elder abuse reports were collected from state adult protective service and state units on aging across the nation for the years of 1993 and 1994. It is important to note that some experts estimate the only one out of 14 domestic elder abuse incidents (excluding the incidents of self neglect) comes to the attention of authorities. NCEA is operated by a consortium of the American Public Welfare Association (APWA), the National Association of State Units on Aging (NASUA), the University of Delaware, and the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), with funding assistance from the Administration on Aging (AoA).

The Need for Elderly Victim Services

The last two decades have witnessed a tremendous growth in the field of victim services. From its infancy in recognizing that crime victims need and deserve basic rights and services, the field of victim assistance has grown to be a very individualized, complex system of service delivery.

In its early years, the victims' movement centered its energy and demands on improving the rights and services available to all crime victims. However, as time progressed and through trial and error, it has become evident that the generic, "one size fits all" type of victim programs do not meet the needs of all crime victims: many victims require different approaches, services, information and specialized rights.

Thus, a more pro-active, specific victim-centered approach for America's crime victims has evolved, including:

However, there are few programs designed specifically to meet the needs of this nation's largest growing population: the elderly.

Crimes against the elderly have emerged as a new, crucial area of concern for victim assistance professionals. Consider the following facts:

Types of Elderly Victimization and Abuse

This chapter examines two types of crimes against elderly victims:

Elderly Victimization: Crimes against the elderly by strangers or acquaintances, excluding those committed by caretakers, family members, or crimes that are classified as domestic abuse.

Elder Abuse: Crimes against the elderly that are predominantly committed by caretakers and family members, and include acts such as sexual and physical violence, neglect and economic exploitation and fraud.

Elderly Victimization

In 1992, 2.1 million persons 65 and over experienced some form of criminal victimization (Bachman, 1992). For example:

Although the elderly are victimized less frequently than any other age group, they have a higher fear of crime than any other age group. This is due largely to the physical limitations that age places on them. Physiological changes as persons age render them less able to fight or flee from dangerous situations. This is one reason why they are often targeted as potential victims. For example:

However, when victimized, the elderly report the crime and participate in its prosecution more than their younger counterparts.

In today's crime stricken world, young children are taught to refrain from speaking to strangers. As a normal part of their daily lives, citizens install multiple locks, security systems, security bars or carry protective devices. They are simply taught at an early age to trust no one, and that crime is an inescapable fact in their lives. However, for many elderly victims, crime victimization is a new concept. Most often, they grew up in an era where one did not lock their doors, neighbors were trusted and a stranger was a friend yet to be met.

Therefore, when victimized, the elderly victim may suffer far greater emotional consequences than "street-wise" younger persons.

Special Victim Assistance Needs Based Upon Age

Providing assistance and support to elderly crime victim presents many challenges to victim assistance personnel. Physical limitations place a burden on both the victim and the personnel assigned to assist them. To provide services, victim assistance professionals should consider the following:

This chapter provides a background and suggested approaches for the victim assistance provider serving the needs of the elderly crime victim. The suggestions may be helpful based on individualized need, and are not meant to imply that all person over age 65 will require specialized services.

There are many elderly victims who have not suffered significant hearing, vision, mental or physical impairment due to aging. Not all elderly victims will want or need assistance. Many elderly victims have strong family networks to provide support, guidance and assistance. The suggestions contained in this section are offered for the elderly victim who does not have a strong family support network, and will need the assistance of trained victim personnel. However, some service providers find it hard not to "rescue" elderly victims with services, advice or information. Providing services is critical in helping the elderly recover from a criminal victimization, but doing so with sensitivity and respect for the victim's wishes or capabilities is far more important.

Promising Practices

Victim Assistance Personnel Working with Elderly Victims

It is important to note that some of the outlined promising practices contained in this section identify emergency considerations for elderly victims that will most often fall to the responding law enforcement agency. It is strongly recommended that an interagency agreement be established between law enforcement and other victim assistance programs to ensure that information regarding crimes against the elderly are shared immediately so assessments for emergency services can be conducted. An interagency agreement will also ensure that the "lion's share" of the workload does not fall to any one agency in particular:

Victims of Elder Abuse

As the average life expectancy increases due to better medical and personal health care, the costs associated with the increase in longevity have skyrocketed. Today many families find that they cannot afford skilled nursing home care for their elderly parents or grandparents and, as such, more and more families must now assume a greater share of the "at home" care and expense for these family members.

Our society is witnessing an increase in abuse and neglect towards the elderly by family members, in-laws or "paid" home-based care givers. Acts of abuse and neglect include:

Unique Characteristics of Elder Abuse

Elderly victims suffer the same psychological affects of domestic abuse as do younger victims of domestic violence. Some unique characteristics of elder abuse include the following:

Barriers to Reporting Abuse

According to a report released in 1990 by the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care of the Select Committee on Aging of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is estimated that only one out of every eight cases of elder abuse are reported (Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care, 1990).

Some elderly victims may be fearful of destroying their children's marriages if they report their son-in-law or daughter-in-law for abuse and/or neglect. For many elderly, it is safer to remain silent and they often fall into a pattern of "learned helplessness" or "resignation" over time (National Victim Center [NVC], 1995).

In almost all states, laws have been drafted to address elder abuse and neglect that specifically requires the reporting of elderly abuse and neglect just as in the cases of child sexual and physical abuse and neglect. Physicians, care givers and social service personnel are required in these states to file a report of abuse to local law enforcement agencies for further evaluation.

(Portions of the above section were excerpted from Focus on the Future: A Systems Approach to Prosecution and Victim Assistance, Nation Victim Center under a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, 1995.)

Types of Elder Abuse Victims

Typically, the elder abuse victim tends to be female, above the age of 75, and lives with the perpetrator of the abuse. Due to a range of physical and mental impairments, the victim generally requires extensive physical care. The abuser tends to be related to the elderly victim and is more often female. Many abusers have alcohol or drug dependency problems and live under severe stress. Based upon research, the percentage of abusers by category in relation to their elder victims is as follows (Tatara, 1995, pp. 9-17):

motional abuse and neglect is most often found to be perpetrated by a female family member or caregiver. Physical and sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by a male family member or caregiver.

One-third of elderly abuse and neglect occurs in an institutional setting, and is not relevant to this section since it primarily addresses interfamiliar abuse.

However, this topic is introduced to provide a scope of the severity of the topic. Care givers at an institution have a legal or financial contractual agreement to provide care for the elderly. Institutions may include:

Civil, as well as criminal, remedies can be sought when physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect is perpetrated against the elderly in these facilities. Just as in a home situation, victims of elderly abuse often suffer intense threats and intimidation by care giver personnel to keep the disclosure of the abuse to a minimum.

Promising Practices

Victim Assistance Services for Victims of Elder Abuse

Victim assistance services provided to victims of elderly abuse and victim should be similar to those offered to victims of domestic violence:

Medicare and supplemental medical coverage will seldom cover the cost of mental health counseling. It is important that the victim or a supportive family member receive an application and information for filing a claim to the state's victim compensation program.

If the elderly victim does not have a support system, the victim service professional should assist the victim in completing the application and mailing it on behalf of the victim. The victim service professional should continue to update the filing of all new bills to the compensation program. The victim and supportive family member(s) should be given information concerning their right to file for civil recovery against paid caretakers to recover medical or financial losses should the alleged defendant not be found guilty or restitution not ordered.

Elderly Victims of Sexual Assault

For many elderly women -- raised in a time when sexual matters were never discussed in the open -- becoming a victim of sexual abuse or rape represents the worst crime possible. To have to air one's private sexual life in the public arena of the criminal justice system is unfathomable.

For some, the fear their religious community will discover the rape is unbearable. Some elderly victims are still surrounded with embarrassment about sexual activity, and have never discussed it, even with their children. Elderly victims may also suffer much anguish from the fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease at their age.

As an added insult, a large percentage of elderly women are raped in their own homes during the commission of another crime -- such as burglary. This type of assault may intensify the older woman's sense of a loss of control. She can't control who enters her home or what happens to her body.

Rape in older victims can increase the chance of sustaining serious injury. Vaginal linings are not as elastic as those of a younger woman due to hormonal changes; this proclivity towards increased sexual trauma may cause infections, bruising, or tears that may never fully heal. Brittle bones such as the pelvis and hips can be more easily broken or crushed by the mere friction and weight of the rapist (NVC, 1995).

Promising Practices

Elderly Sexual Assault Victims

Law enforcement protocol should be used when responding to the needs of the elderly sexual assault victim. This protocol should include training for first-responders as to the emotional consequences of rape for the older woman; assigning a female officer to question and accompany the victim for medical care and rape exam when possible; community-based programs and services for referrals; seeking the victim's consent before any contact is made with the victim's family, where possible; allowing the victim to retrieve a change of clothing so she is not released in hospital garb or inappropriate donated clothing; seeking the victim's consent prior to calling in a rape crisis advocate for emotional support both at the hospital and after release; ensuring the victim is shielded from any and all media if she so requests; providing information on security options; and perhaps most importantly, ensuring the victim has a safe place to go after the medical exam.

Victim assistance professionals can:

Elderly Victims of Financial Schemes or Frauds

Elderly victims are targeted for crimes of a financial nature more than any other type of victim population. Although the elderly victim of fraud will not sustain any direct physical injury, the psychological impact of this type of crime can be devastating.

A vast majority of our elderly population live on fixed incomes. The financial impact of a crime of fraud can be devastating to those living on fixed incomes. They can lose their entire life savings and sometimes their homes. For some elderly victims, the crime costs them more than money because some must give up their last vestige of independence when forced to move in with adult children or other family members out of financial necessity.

Promising Practices

Working with Elderly Victims of Fraud or Financial Schemes

Elderly Victims of Violent Crime

Statistically, elderly citizens are the least likely to be physically injured in the commission of a crime. However, when injuries are suffered, they tend to be more serious due to the normal physical vulnerability of the aging body. According to national statistics for 1987 to 1992, the elderly are twice as likely as any other age group to be seriously injured and require hospitalizations when victimized. Elderly robbery victims are more likely than their younger counterparts to face multiple offenders and offenders armed with a gun (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1987).

Most homicide victims age 65 or older were killed during the commission of another felony (like robbery) and were more likely to be killed by strangers. By contrast, younger homicide victims are more likely to be killed by an acquaintance and to die during events such as a fight or family argument (Bachman, 1992). The elderly are less apt to try to protect themselves than their younger counterparts. As part of the aging process, the elderly have an increased frailty that makes them more susceptible to physical injury and less able to recover from such injuries. Even slight resistance during a criminal incident may result in serious injuries for an older victims. For example, as a victim of a mugging, a younger person may experience only minor bruising or scraping as a result of being pushed to the ground. For the elderly victim, there is a marked increase in sustaining serious injuries, such as broken bones or concussions -- injuries from which they may not fully recover.

Promising Practices

Working with Injured Elderly Victims

Elderly Victims of Burglary

For many elderly, their world becomes the area immediate to their home as they begin to lose networks that have supported them throughout their life. They retire from jobs, friends and family members begin to die, and outside leisure activities decrease due to increasing physical or mental limitations. Largely, this explains why the majority of elderly crime victims are victimized in or near their home.

Burglary's Impact on Elderly Victims:

The sentimental loss of possessions stolen during a burglary is often far greater for the elderly. Their grief and emotional trauma may be extreme. It may be helpful for victim assistance personnel to work with family members so they can understand the emotional ramifications of the burglary on the victim.

Elderly victims are more likely than any other burglary victims to want to relocate after the crime, but financial limitations may not allow such a move. Although few, there are several federal, state and community programs that do help with the financial burdens of relocation. (A list of these resources is contained at the end of this chapter.)

In the event the elderly victim does not wish to move, he or she may experience an emotional need to withdraw from community involvement. As soon as possible after the crime is reported, it is important to restore a sense of security and safety to the elderly victim of burglary.

One approach is to conduct a thorough search of the property to identify points of entry that may need to be repaired or further secured. If the victim is unable to afford the repairs, replacement or increased security options, a list of community resources that can help should be provided to the victim or contacted on behalf of the victim.

Promising Practices

Elderly Victims

Preventing/Addressing Elder Abuse

Although each state has a different system to address elder abuse, the following agencies have been established by federal, state and local governments to help:

State Elder Abuse Hotlines: Many states have instituted a 24-hour toll free number for receiving reports of elder abuse. These calls are confidential.

Adult Protective Services: In most jurisdictions, either Adult Protective Services or the County Department of Social Services is designated as the agency to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse and neglect. If the investigators find abuse or neglect, they are mandated to make arrangements for services to protect adult victims.

Medicaid Fraud Control Units: Every State Attorney General's Office is required by federal law to have a Medicaid Fraud Unit to investigate and prosecute Medicaid provider fraud and patient abuse or neglect in health care programs that participate in Medicaid, including home health care services.

Law Enforcement: Local police, sheriff's offices and prosecuting attorneys may investigate and prosecute cases of elderly abuse and neglect. In states where statutes make elder abuse a crime, there may be a requirement to report all suspected cases to a law enforcement agency.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program: Since the passage of the 1975 Older Americans Act, every state has established a Long-term Ombudsman Program to investigate and resolve nursing home complaints, including elderly abuse and neglect.

Information and Referral: Every area Agency on Aging operates an information and referral line that can refer people to a wide range of services for people who are 60 years and older. These services can be particularly helpful in locating services that can help prevent abuse and neglect.

National and State Information: Often people who want to help older relatives or friends do not live near them. Long-distance caretakers can call a nationwide toll-free Eldercare Locator Number (1-800-677-1116) to locate services in the community in which the elder lives. In addition, some states have established a statewide toll-free number to provide centralized information on aging services for state residents.

(The preceding section excerpted from the Focus on the Future: A Systems Approach to Prosecution and Victim Assistance training manual developed by the National Victim Center under a U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime grant project, 1995.)

Promising Practices

Effective Communication Techniques with
Older Adults in Stressful Situations

(The preceding section excerpted from the Focus on the Future: A Systems Approach to Prosecution and Victim Assistance training manual developed by the National Victim Center under a U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime grant project, 1995.)

Self Examination Chapter 18

Elderly Victims of Crime

1) What are the five types of elder abuse and neglect?

2) Identify three "promising practices" for victim service providers for helping elderly victims.

3) What are three special concerns of elderly victims of sexual assault?

4) What are three specific services that can be offered to elderly burglary victims by victim service and law enforcement professionals?

5) Discuss the difference(s) between elder abuse and neglect and elderly victimization.


American Association of Retired Persons. (1990). Issues affecting crime victims: Background, current status, and implications for older persons. Washington, DC: American Association of Retired Persons, Criminal Justice Services.

Bachman, R. (1992, October). Special report: Elderly victims. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1981) Crime and the elderly. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1987) Elderly victimization. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1994, March). Elderly crime victims: National crime victimization survey (NCJ-147186). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1994). Selected findings from BJS: National crime victim survey, elderly crime victims. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Hunzeker, Donna. (1990). State legislative response to crimes against the elderly. Denver, CO: National Conference on State Legislatures

National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse. (1991). Working with abused and neglected elders in minority populations: A synthesis of research. Washington, DC: Author.

National Victim Center. (1995). Focus on the future: A systems approach to prosecution and victim assistance. (Grant project). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime.

Roberts, A.R., Andrews, A.B. (c1990). Helping crime victims: Research, policy and practice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Straus, Martha B. (1956). Abuse and victimization across the life span. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, (c1988).

Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care. (1990, May). Elder abuse: A decade of shame and in-action. Washington, DC: U.S. House of Representatives, Select Committee on Aging.

Tatara, T. (1995). Elder abuse: Questions and answers, an information guide for professionals and concerned citizens (5th ed.). Washington, DC: National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse.

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