Crime and Abuse Against Seniors:
A Review of the Research Literature With Special Reference to the Canadian Situation


Traditionally, much of the criminological literature devoted to the elderly has focused on the issue of the fear of crime. It has repeatedly been pointed out that seniors, as a group, have a level of fear that is out of proportion with their actual likelihood of victimization. Such judgments have not taken into account the fact that a simple tally of crimes aimed at seniors, relative to other groups, is not a good indicator of the impact of crime on them. Seniors who are assaulted are more likely to die or to suffer debilitating injuries. They are also more likely to be placed in nursing homes than those not experiencing attacks. Finally, they are more likely than those in other age groups to remain silent about the abuse they suffer due to frequent dependency on the abuser or feelings of shame.

There are numerous gaps in the research literature dealing with seniors and criminal victimization. These gaps are in the following areas:

The Prevalence of Victimization

Table 4.1 shows that there is still much to learn about the prevalence of crimes against Canadian seniors. There has been just one national survey dedicated to the study of this issue and it is nearly 20 years old (Podnieks et al., 1990). That study surveyed seniors in private homes and hence we know little about the extent of different forms of abuse in institutional settings. More studies are needed to learn about the prevalence of criminal victimization and different forms of abuse over the previous 12 months, as well as over the senior years. Furthermore, while some studies provide an overall figure for the prevalence of all forms of victimization, other studies provide a figure for each form of abuse.

Institutional Abuse

There is an enormous void in our understanding of the extent, patterns, and types of abuse, as well as risk factors, in Canadian institutions. Institutional abuse and neglect of the elderly are serious concerns on an international level. Little is known about the proportion of crimes occurring in institutions that are reported to the police. This is a major issue as it may be in the interest of these facilities to suppress criminal incidents while cultivating the image of clean, orderly, secure, and harmonious places. The issues of reporting make the case for surveys and focus groups even more compelling.

Definitional and Methodological Issues

Studies vary in terms of their focus (crime versus elder abuse), the types of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or financial), their geographic scope (national or provincial), the settings (institutional versus those residing in private homes), and in their time frames (abuse over the past year or lifetime as senior). There are also differences in terms of how "senior" is defined (over 55 or over 65 years of age). Research adopting the WHO's definition of elder abuse by definition excludes violence and other maltreatment not occurring within the context of a relationship of trust.

Protocols ought to be established to guide national research in this area to ensure that studies are rigorous and comparable. In addition, studies need to follow up on and verify reports of abuse, as opposed to accepting all agency and survey data at face value. Seniors often have falls and injuries need to be shown to have resulted from abuse (Dunn, 1995).

Sampling Biases

Surveys and focus groups involving seniors often use small, local samples that may not represent other seniors in that locality or region, let alone seniors in other geographic areas. One risk is that seniors who are involved in these studies may be community leaders, independent, and enjoying good health. They may therefore not appreciate nor experience the maltreatment suffered by those who are dependent due to ill health or poverty, and those who are in some form of institutional setting. Furthermore, those experiencing abuse and dependent on the perpetrators may be completely unaware of such surveys or be very reluctant to participate in them.

Perpetrators of Crime/Abuse Against Seniors

While much remains to be learned, the majority of studies have focused on seniors who are victims of crime or abuse. Apart from a lack of sufficient research on the perpetrators of abuse, there is a wall of silence as many forms of maltreatment are not reported to officials or even in surveys (Gabor and Mata, 2004). As a result, most perpetrators are not identified. Thus far, criminologists, social workers, nurses, and other professionals concerned about elder abuse tend more toward advocacy for the victims than toward striving to understand the factors influencing the conduct of perpetrators.

Those Who Avoid Abuse and Exploitation

Aside from further research on victim characteristics, more can be learned about seniors who manage to avoid financial and other forms of abuse (Johnson, 2002). Such research can provide valuable guidance with regard to actions to be taken by, and on behalf of, seniors in general in order to increase their resistance to abuse. We need to determine the characteristics of this group, their residential arrangements (e.g., whether they live alone), their exposure to fraudulent marketing efforts, how they stop unwanted sales offers, and whether they seek the advice of others and do research prior to taking decisions on purchases.

Domestic Crimes/Abuse

The wall of silence mentioned above is especially hard to penetrate in the case of domestic incidents. The underreporting of maltreatment of elderly people at the hands of family members is especially significant. Little is known about the true extent of maltreatment, the most prevalent forms, the triggers, risk factors, distinguishing characteristics of perpetrators, and all the consequences for the elderly victims.

Markers of Abuse

Caregivers, agencies providing protection for seniors, medical personnel, and law enforcement officers often lack the tools to distinguish between injuries resulting from maltreatment and those due to illness, accidents, or aging (McNamee and Murphy, 2006). There is no single test for abuse or neglect (Dyer et al., 2003). Research needs to identify the forensic markers of abuse and to determine the factors placing elderly people at risk, both in institutional and other settings.

Consequences of Abuse

There is some evidence that the consequences of crime and abuse are far more profound for seniors. Preliminary evidence indicates that seniors who have been assaulted are more likely to die and to experience serious injuries than are more youthful members of society. They may also face a loss of independence, involving some form of institutional placement and care following a criminal attack. More qualitative research is needed to understand these consequences of crime in order to identify appropriate interventions. Simple tallies of crimes against seniors are insufficient in gaining an understanding of the risks to which they are exposed.

Fear of Crime

While much has been written about seniors' "exaggerated" level of fear, a better understanding is required as to why the elderly tend to be more fearful than other age groups. Is this higher fear level due to feelings of physical vulnerability or social isolation? Understanding the sources of this fear can contribute to the development of appropriate interventions as fear itself can be incapacitating and isolating, leading to mental health issues such as depression and making seniors more vulnerable to financial and other forms of exploitation.

Role of Socio-Economic Status and Gender

Certain forms of victimization of seniors may be due to factors other than age. For example, physical abuse at the hands of a spouse or adult child may be more closely related to gender, family history and socio-economic status than it is to age. More controlled studies are required in order to identify other variables that may be linked to the abuse of an elderly person. Age may sometimes be a secondary factor or not be a risk factor at all. In fact, with regard to spousal assault, abuse and age are inversely related, meaning that this behaviour generally declines with age, everything else being equal.

Prevention Strategies: What Works?

Research needs to catalog interventions implemented nationally and internationally to prevent elder abuse or, at least, to mitigate its effects. Rigorous evaluations of policies and programs need to be conducted and best practices identified. Such evaluations need to take into account the financial costs of different measures, as well as consequences for seniors in terms of their independence and personal security.

Seniors' Reluctance to Report Crimes

The non-disclosure of crimes and abuse by elderly victims is becoming increasingly evident from research, as well as from practitioners. There is a host of reasons, from shame and fear of reprisal to the desire to protect caregivers and to stay out of residential care facilities. These reasons need to be better understood through interviews and focus groups with seniors. It would be useful to know, for instance, whether seniors are reluctant to report because they fear they may be disregarded or their mental capacity questioned, or if they are hesitant to report crimes by family members due to fear of the effect on the family or on themselves. Such research ought to also seek to identify measures that would facilitate disclosure of abuse and criminal victimization, such as whether seniors would be more likely to report if there were some informal means of conflict resolution beyond the formal criminal justice system.