Elder DV May Involve Adult Children, Non-Family

Senior couple at home in kitchen focusing on angry man

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. When people hear "domestic violence" or "DV," they almost always think of abuse and exploitation by an intimate partner. Although Aging and Disability Services certainly sees and serves individuals where this is the case, we see an overwhelming volume of abuse and exploitation against elders by other family members, "friends" and trusted others such as real estate agents, neighbors, financial planners, gardeners and housekeepers.

By and large, the most frequent type of referrals we receive are older adults who are exploited and abused by their adult children or grandchildren—most often living in the same home but not always. In our state, the legal definition of domestic violence includes not just intimate partners, but blood relatives and other family members, as well as perpetrators who live in the same home as the senior (e.g., tenants who are abusive to seniors—many older people rent out rooms in order to bring in extra income to make ends meet).

The case of Mr. and Mrs. C

Mr. C, age 86, and Mrs. C, age 78, had a 48-year-old daughter. Mr. C had dementia and heart disease. Mrs. C had memory deficits, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis (MS). The couple's daughter had a history of drug problems and drug-related arrests. She lived with her parents and invited other drug users onto their property and into their home. Later, local law enforcement described both the daughter and her acquaintances as drug addicts.

The daughter financially exploited her parents, stealing cash from their wallets and prescription medications (particularly pain meds). The daughter transported her father to the bank and bullied him to withdraw cash for her use. Due to his dementia, he was easily coerced and remembers very little.

Mrs. C reported (because Mr. C couldn't remember) that their daughter frequently screamed and cursed at them, and called them names. The daughter's behavior was volatile and erratic. On at least one occasion, the daughter physically assaulted her father.

Despite Mrs. C's protests, her daughter continued to invite strangers into their home and give them unchecked access to the house. With more insight than her husband, Mrs. C was concerned for their safety. Mr. C didn't have the judgment or insight to be worried about their safety.

Once a report was filed, Aging and Disability Services, Geratric Regional Assessment Team, local law enforcement, the human services department located in Mr. and Mrs. C's city of residence, Adult Protective Services, and the King County Prosecuting Attorneys' Office jumped into action. These agencies collaborated and coordinated their efforts, which resulted in:

  • A court petition for Vulnerable Adult Protection Orders to protect them from their daughter as best as possible.
  • Coordination with neighbors to handle transportation to doctor's appointments.
  • Cognitive and mental health evaluations to determine the victims' capacity for making decisions.
  • Meals on Wheels home-delivered meals.
  • Guardianship for both victims for their personal and financial protection. Their guardians coordinated the sale of their home and placement for them together in an appropriate long-term care setting where they received the care they needed, including assistance with bathing, dressing, and medication management.
  • Freezing of the couple's account to block the daughter's access to their funds until guardianships were established for them.
  • The daughter served jail time and was prohibited from further contact with her parents.

Limited options for safe shelter

Sadly, DV agencies have very limited resources for older adults. For instance, older adults who are victims of abuse or exploitation may want to leave home to escape their abuser, but they have nowhere to go.

DV shelters—also emergency shelters—are not designed with older people in mind. Among the DV shelters, spaces are usually reserved for those fleeing intimate partner violence. DV shelter populations are typically comprised of younger women, many with children. Older adults fleeing abuse can find it hard to relate to the younger generation and often don't want to be around the boisterous energy and noise of young children. It can be overwhelming.

If the abused elder pursues a regular shelter (non-DV focus), they face sleeping on a mat on the floor, having to line up and arrive at the shelter late in the evening, and having to leave early in the morning. Older individuals often have mobility and balance issues and can't bend, squat, or have the strength to get up and down off a mat on the floor. The facility might not have room for walkers or wheelchairs. Some individuals are often turned away because of incontinence or other medical issues. Importantly, many abuse victims struggle with cognitive deficits, and are therefore at greater risk of exploitation when staying in a regular emergency shelter.

Call to action

Learn more about elder abuse—the shocking prevalence, the signs of abuse, and resources—by visiting the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, National Center on Elder Abuse, National Institute on Aging, and Ageless Alliance as well as Aging and Disability Services' elder abuse webpage.

Pay attention to funding for prevention of all kinds of abuse, and supportive services for those who are abused—economic and legal advocacy, emergency and transitional housing, counseling, support groups, and medical accompaniment. Unfortunately, elder abuse is a growing problem, with devastating consequences.

If you know an older adult whom you believe is a victim of abuse, neglect, or exploitation, contact Adult Protective Services at 1-866-END-HARM or your local law enforcement agency.

Contributor Kathi Church is a case manager at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County, who specializes in supporting victims of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. For more information about Kathi's work, read Coordinated Response Helps Prevent Abuse, Neglect, Exploitation (AgeWise King County, June 2015) and Quiet Crimes: Elder Abuse On Rise In Washington (KUOW, 11/18/2014).