Elder abuse is a horrible problem: during people’s sunset years, they should relax and be comfortable, not have to worry about abuse from family members and caregivers. However, the issue of people abusing the vulnerable elderly is a growing one in the United States. What causes it? This essay explains a growing theory that accounts for the causes of elder abuse. According to Quinn and Tomita (1997), there are five main hypotheses for elder abuse (Quinn & Tomita, 1997, pp. 86-87). The first is simple power: some people simply focus on dependency issues (Quinn & Tomita, 1997, pp. 86-87). Others are acting out due to the stress of acting as a caregiver; this is particularly common within family caregiving settings (Quinn & Tomita, 1997, pp. 86-87). Another hypothesis states that elder abuse is simply caused because some individuals have grown up in families that solve problems with violence (Quinn & Tomita, 1997, pp. 86-87). Another hypothesis claims that some are related to individual abuser’s problems, such as substance abuse and depression (Quinn & Tomita, 1997, pp. 86-87). Finally, the last hypothesis states that in some societies, elders have lost their personhood due to greed, lookism, and hatred of the disabled. Most other studies support at least one of these hypotheses. For example, Brandl and Raymond found that the most common cause of elder abuse was caregiver stress, regardless of whether the caregiver was a family member or professional; they also emphasize the role of the elderly person: an abused child may abuse their parent once the parent is frail, for example; this connects to Quinn and Tomita’s hypotheses of violent families and individual abuser’s problems (Brandl & Raymond, 2012). Nerenberg, too, claims that caregiver stress is the main cause of elder abuse (Nerenberg, 2002).
She emphasizes the perspective of the caregiver, particularly the first-time caregiver, as these individuals are more likely to engage in elder abuse (Nerenberg, 2002). Meanwhile, Hawes focuses on professional caregivers’ abuse of the elderly in long-term care facilities (Hawes, 2003). Hawes does not offer many causes, but hints at them by discussing the low pay and high-stress nature of caregiving jobs (Hawes, 2003). Thomason ascribes the causes of elder abuse to a changing society in which people live longer and are ill-prepared for caretaking (Thomason, 2011). He emphasizes the social causes of elder abuse, focusing on the need to make everyone aware of the issues related to elder abuse and aging (Thomason, 2011). In contrast, and by focusing on the individual level, Vetere emphasizes caregiver burnout as a major cause of elder abuse (Vetere, 2011). Bronwell addresses the causes of elder abuse only implicitly, but presents data on the low pay and long hours in the caregiving industry and also discusses the aspects of burnout and frustration that can cause family-based elder abuse to occur (Brownwell & Podnicks, 2005). In addition to discussing the elderly abusing themselves by failing to engage in self-care, they also offer data that some risk factors mean one is more likely to become an abuser: a low level of education, mental retardation (by the caregiver), substance abuse by either the elder or the caregiver, a prior history of violence or psychiatric issues, and stress (Gorbien & Eisenstein, 2005, p. 282). Gorbien and Eisenstein (2005) proposed five archetypes for abusers of the elderly, which are the overwhelmed, the impaired (e.g., mentally or physically), the narcissistic, the bullying, and the sadistic (Gorbien & Eisenstein, 2005, p. 284). In keeping with the overall causes mentioned by Quinn and Tomita, these archetypes offer reasons individuals may turn to abuse (Quinn & Tomita, 1997). Thus it can be said that a theory for the causation of elder abuse is that within a context of a society that is poorly equipped to deal with the elderly, and within an individualist, looks-oriented society that discriminates against the disabled, many people are ashamed or frustrated by their relatives’ (or clients’, in the case of professional caregivers) decline. This feeling of helplessness and disgust, combined with stress and burnout – exacerbated due to the poor preparation most family caregivers have, and the long hours and poor pay offered to many professional caregivers – creates a context in which abuse is likely.
Additional factors, like abuse from the elders themselves (e.g., bitter about losing capacity, holding long grudges against family members, aggression due to cognitive decline such as through Alzheimer’s) can spark an abusive incident. Moreover, if an individual has any of the characteristics noted by Gorbien and Eisenstein, they may be more likely to abuse. Working towards a theory of elder abuse, one can imagine a flow chart (provided on the next page). First, the background of this abuse occurs against a context of a society fiercely focused on beauty and ableism. Second, if an individual ends up caring for an elder and they are poorly prepared or compensated, this context intensifies. Third, if an individual is impaired in some way, he or she will quickly become burned out and stressed. Fourth, pre-existing interpersonal factors like abuse are exemplified in elder caregiver situations. Fifth, some personality types (narcissists who want others to admire them for their supposed selflessness; sociopaths) want to care for elders for their own sick needs. Sixth, if a caregiver has a risk factor such as low IQ, low education, substance abuse, or mental health issues, he or she is more likely to be an abuser. Finally, caregivers suffer burnout, and eventually, when caring for an elder individual, they may engage in a violent incident. This theory is outlined in the flowchart below, which moves from left to right. Major causes are represented by larger circles.
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