Skip to main content Accessibility help

Defining elder mistreatment: reflections on the United Kingdom Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People



This paper critically reflects upon policy and research definitions of elder mistreatment in light of the findings of the United Kingdom Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People that was commissioned by Comic Relief with co-funding from the Department of Health. The study uniquely comprised a national survey and follow-up qualitative research with survey respondents. This paper focuses on the findings of the qualitative component. One focus is the idea of ‘expectation of trust’, with an argument being made that the concept needs clarification for different types of relationships. It is particularly important to distinguish between trust in affective relationships and ‘positions of trust’ (as of paid carers), and to articulate the concept in terms that engage with older people's experiences and that are meaningful for different relationship categories. The qualitative research also found that ascriptions of neglect and abuse tend to be over-inclusive, in some instances to avoid identifying institutional and service failures. We also question the role and relevance of the use of chronological age in the notion of ‘elder abuse’. Given that ‘abuse’, ‘neglect’ and ‘expectation of trust’ are ill-defined and contested concepts, we recommend that although consistent definitions are important, especially for research into the epidemiology and aetiology of the syndrome and for informed policy discussion, they will unavoidably be provisional and pragmatic.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Josie Dixon, National Centre for Social Research, 35 Northampton Square, LondonEC1V 0AX, UK E-mail:


Hide All
Biggs, S., McCreadie, C., Manthorpe, C., Tinker, A., Hills, A., Doyle, M. and Erens, B. 2008. Mistreatment of older people in the United Kingdom: findings from the first national prevalence study. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 23, 1, 114.
Biggs, S. and Powell, J. L. 2001. A Foucaultian analysis of old age and the power of social welfare. Journal of Ageing and Social Policy, 12, 2, 93–112.
Bonnie, R. J. and Wallace, R. B. (eds)2003. Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation in an Aging America. Committee on National Statistics and Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, National Academies Press, Washington DC.
Brammer, A. and Biggs, S. 1998. Defining elder abuse. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 20, 3, 285305.
Bryman, A. 2008. Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Chappell, N., Gee, E., McDonald, L. and Stones, M. 2003. Ageing in Contemporary Canada. Prentice Hall, Toronto.
Comjis, H. C., Pot, A. M., Smit, J. H., Bouter, L. M. and Jonker, C. 1998. Elder abuse in the community: prevalence and consequences. Journal of American Geriatrics Society, 46, 7, 885–8.
Cook, K., Hardin, R. and Levi, M. 2005. Co-operation Without Trust? Russell Sage, New York.
Department of Health 2000. No Secrets: Guidance on Developing and Implementing Multi-agency Policies and Procedures to Protect Vulnerable Adults from Abuse. Department of Health, London.
Finkelhor, D. and Pillemer, K. A. 1988. Elder abuse: its relation to other forms of domestic violence. In Hotaling, G. T., Finkelhor, D., Kirkpatrick, J. T. and Strauss, M. A. (eds), Family Abuse and its Consequences: New Directions in Research. Sage, Newbury Park, California, 244–54.
Gallie, W. B. 1964. Essentially contested concepts. In Gallie, W. B. (ed.), Philosophy and the Historical Understanding. Chatto and Windus, London, 157–91.
Giddens, A. 1993. The Giddens Reader. Editor: Philip Cassell, Macmillan, London.
Glaser, K., Stuchbury, R., Tomassini, C. and Askham, J. 2008. The long term consequences of partnership dissolution for support in later life in the United Kingdom. Ageing & Society, 28, 3, 329–51.
Harbison, J. 1999. The changing career of ‘elder abuse and neglect’ as a social problem in Canada: learning from feminist frameworks? Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 11, 4, 5980.
Hardin, R. 2002. Trust and Trustworthiness. Russell Sage, New York.
Kane, R. A. 1990. Venerable and perhaps vulnerable: the nature and extent of vulnerability amongst the aged. In Harel, Z., Erlich, P. and Hubbard, R. (eds), The Vulnerable Aged: People, Services and Policies. Springer Publishing Company, New York, 4–17.
Lachs, M. S. and Pillemer, K. A. 2004. Elder abuse. The Lancet, 364, 1263–72.
Leroux, T. G. and Petrunik, M. 1990. The construction of elder abuse as a social problem: a Canadian perspective. International Journal of Health Services, 20, 4, 651–63.
Luhmann, N. 1980. Trust: a mechanism for the reduction of social complexity. In Luhmann, N. (ed.), Trust and Power. Wiley, New York, 4–103.
McCreadie, C. 2007. The mistreatment and abuse of older people. Journal of Care Services Management, 1, 2, 173–9.
Misztal, B. 1996. Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Bases of Social Order. Polity, Cambridge.
Mowlam, A., Tennant, R., Dixon, J. and McCreadie, C. 2007. UK Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People: Qualitative Findings. Comic Relief, London.
National Assembly for Wales 2000. In Safe Hands: Implementing Adult Protection Procedures in Wales. Social Services Inspectorate, Cardiff, UK.
O'Keefe, M., Hills, A., Doyle, M., McCreadie, C., Scholes, S., Constantine, R., Tinker, A., Manthorpe, J., Biggs, S. and Erens, B. 2007. UK Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People: Prevalence Survey Report. National Centre for Social Research, London.
Ogg, J. and Bennett, G. 1992. Elder abuse in Britain. British Medical Journal, 305, 998–9.
Okin, S. M. 1989. Justice, Gender and the Family. Basic, New York.
Penhale, B. 2003. The concept of elder abuse. Unpublished paper presented at the conference Elder Abuse: Can We Achieve a World without Violence? Queen Sofia Centre for the Study of Violence, Valencia, Spain.
Pillemer, K. and Finkelhor, D. 1988. The prevalence of elder abuse: a random sample survey. The Gerontologist, 28, 1, 51–7.
Podnieks, E., Pillemer, K., Shillington, T. and Frizzel, A. 1990. National Survey on Abuse of the Elderly in Canada: The Ryerson Study. Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto.
Ritchie, J. and Lewis, J. (eds)2003. Qualitative Research: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers. Sage, London.
Sentencing Guidelines Council 2004. Over-arching Principles: Seriousness. Sentencing Guidelines Secretariat, London. Available online at [Accessed 20 January 2009].
Stevens, M. and Manthorpe, J. 2007. Barring inappropriate people? The operation of a barring list of social care workers: an analysis of the first referrals to the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) List. Health and Social Care in the Community, 15, 4, 285–94.
Stones, M. J. 1995. Scope and definition of elder abuse and neglect in Canada. In MacLean, M. J. (ed.), Abuse and Neglect of Older Canadians: Strategies for Change. Thompson Educational, Toronto, 111–16.
Von Lampe, K. and Johansen, P. 2003. Criminal networks and trust. Paper presented at the third annual meeting of the European Society of Criminology, Helsinki.
Williams, B., Stacey, C., Sawyer, C. and Wahlstrom, C. 2005. Marriages, Families and Intimate Relationships. Pearson, Boston, Massachusetts.
World Health Organisation and International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse 2002. Missing Voices: Views of Older Persons on Elder Abuse. World Health Organisation, Geneva.


Defining elder mistreatment: reflections on the United Kingdom Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed