IV. Explaining Elder Abuse
One of the most basic drives of any field of study involves efforts to explain the behavior being studied. Early elder abuse research tended to focus on the following four explanations:
- Intraindividual explanations
- Dependency explanations
- Caregiver stress explanations
- Cycle-of-violence explanations
More recently, criminologists have demonstrated how different criminological theories can be applied to elder abuse. Criminological explanations that have been applied to elder abuse include the following:
- Deterrence theory
- Strain theory
- Social control theory
- Conflict theory
- Learning theory
- Neutralization theory
- Self-control theory
- Routine activities theory
- Social disorganization theory
In this section, the way that traditional and criminological explanations have been used to explain elder abuse is considered.
Intraindividual explanations suggest that something within either the older person or the offender caused the abuse. For instance, it has been suggested that abusers tend to be unemployed individuals who have drug problems or mental health issues. Among victims, it has been found that dementia and other health-related problems place older individuals at a higher risk for abuse.
Dependency explanations suggest that the care recipient’s dependency on the caregiver places the older individual at risk for abuse. Those citing this explanation often refer to Susan Steinmetz’s (1988) concept of generational inversion to demonstrate how this dependency manifests itself. When individuals are younger, they tend to be dependent on their parents for food, resources, housing, emotional needs, and so on. As the parent ages, and the child does as well, at some point the parent may become unable to care for himself or herself. The parent then may become dependent on the child. While this explanation makes some degree of sense, experts do not all agree that dependency causes elder abuse. Some say that it may cause financial abuse, but it does not necessarily cause physical abuse.
Caregiver stress explanations suggest that abuse occurs because caregivers are unable to cope with the stress that arises from the caregiving situation. From this perspective, it is argued that adult children are not adequately prepared to become caregivers for their parents. When they become caregivers, the burden that comes along with the caregiving creates a situation where individuals may become aggressive in order to cope with the stress. While all agree that caregiving can be stressful, fewer experts agree that stress actually causes abuse. Other factors and dynamics are likely more relevant.
Cycle-of-violence explanations have suggested that elder abuse may be attributed to living in violent families. Initially, it was believed that people who abused older persons were victims of child abuse who were “getting even” with their older parents. Note, however, that no studies have supported this belief. Indeed, it is now believed that child abuse victims, because of the dynamics of their victimization experience, would rarely become the primary caregiver for their aging parents (e.g., an adult offspring will not be likely to become a caregiver for a parent that was abusive).
The above explanations were the early ones for elder abuse. As criminologists have become involved in studying elder abuse, it has become apparent that some criminological explanations can be applied to the phenomenon. For example, using deterrence theory as a guide, it is plausible that cases of elder abuse continue because individuals are able to get away with their offending with minimal, if any, punishment. Criminologist Brian Payne (2006) has argued that strain theory can be used to understand caregiver stress explanations, and self-control theory can be integrated with the intraindividual explanations. In addition, rather than looking at the cycle of violence specifically, criminologists have suggested an examination of how social learning applies to elder abuse. As well, criminologists have noted that routine activities theory easily applies to elder abuse, particularly in nursing homes. The abuser is the motivated offender, the victim is the vulnerable target, and the lack of criminal justice concern about elder abuse equates to the lack of a capable guardian. Criminologists are also now beginning to apply social disorganization theory to elder abuse. In particular, researchers are considering whether elder abuse is distributed equally across communities.