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Reporting on Elder Abuse: Avoiding Pitfalls

The characteristics which are often ascribed to older persons tend to be stereotypes. Journalists must exercise care when covering stories about elder mistreatment.

Journalists have a positive role to play in educating the public about elder abuse. Below are just a few of the widely held misconceptions to avoid in reporting:

Myths vs. Reality

Myth #1: Abuse of older adults generally occurs on dark streets by unknown perpetrators.
Reality: Most substantiated cases of elder abuse are committed by people known to the victim; in most cases spouses and other family members. Only one in five cases is referred for help.
Myth #2: Victims always despise the abuser and want to report the abusive situation.
Reality: Abusive situations are complex. The older victim often is torn between their love for an individual (a spouse or a child, for example) and knowing they are being mistreated or abused.
Myth #3: No one would ever abuse an older person.
Reality: Elder abuse exists and, while we have very little reliable national data, it is estimated that millions of older persons are victims of some form of abuse every year.
Myth #4: Elder abuse means the same thing all across the country and falls into one of three categories: Physical, Emotional, and Financial.
Reality: State laws define elder/adult abuse and the definitions vary from state to state. However, the following types of abuse are usually found: physical abuse, including acts of pain or injury; emotional abuse relating to psychological harm; sexual assault; financial exploitation; and neglect. Some states include abandonment as a type of abuse; others include unreasonable confinement.
Myth #5: Neglect occurs out of ignorance of what an older adult needs.
Reality: While some situations of neglect may be unintentional, due to a caregiver's ignorance of what an older adult needs, the most common and serious form of neglect is intentional, willful failure of a family member or a caregiver to provide needed services and/or protections.
Myth #6: The risk of being abused varies based upon a person's income level.
Reality: Elder abuse cuts across all socio-economic strata.
Myth #7: Model prevention and intervention solutions for child abuse can be replicated for elder abuse.
Reality: Model prevention and intervention solutions would not be applicable to both child abuse and elder abuse because there are basic differences between the two forms of abuse. Children and adults differ in their level of competency, level of privacy and right to autonomy. As a result, using the same models to address both forms of abuse would not make sense.
Myth #8: Older people lose the ability to make choices, such as financial decisions.
Reality: Most elders are fully capable of making choices. Adults with severe cognitive disabilities may require greater support, but this does not preclude their right to participate actively in decisions affecting their lives. Also, mental decline in older adults is milder than most people think. An older adult may sometimes process information slower than a young adult, but the difference is often modest and can be offset by the older person's experience and wisdom.
Myth #9: Older adults and young adults respond similarly to abuse.
Reality: Older victims are more likely to be injured, more likely to need medical attention, and more likely to lose trust than younger victims.
Myth #10: Children who abuse elderly parents were likely to have been abused themselves.
Reality: Some research has suggested a cycle of violence where children who have been abused grow up to be abusers themselves, but a few studies suggest that child abuse is likely to produce adults who abuse their children and/or spouses-not their parents.
Myth #11: Passing laws to protect older adults will solve the problem of elder abuse.
Reality: People who interact with older adults on all levels need to be aware of elder abuse. This may involve passing new laws or enforcing existing laws, training law enforcement and health professionals, and providing more resources for adult protective services.

The National Center on Elder Abuse would like to acknowledge Dr. Bernadette West, who allowed us to adapt a document that she created on Media Pitfalls for inclusion in the Media Newsroom section of our Web site. Dr. West is an Assistant Professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and is writing a Handbook for Journalists on Maltreatment of Vulnerable Adults.

Last Updated: May 19, 2003  Top


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