Skip to main content

Critical concepts in elder abuse research

  • Thomas Goergen (a1) and Marie Beaulieu (a2)

Background: This paper identifies core elements in principal definitions of elder abuse or mistreatment of older adults (EA/MOA) and discusses the relevance of four crucial concepts: age, vulnerability, trust, and power balance in relationships.

Method: A critical analysis of selected literature in EA/MOA with a focus on works from the last 10 years.

Results: Current definitions of EA/MOA share commonalities regarding an understanding of elder abuse as a status offence, the inclusion of both acts and omissions, and the consideration of multiple levels of behavior and its effects. Definitions differ with regard to aspects as crucial as the intentionality of an abusive action and its actual or potential harmful effects. EA/MOA can be considered as a complex subtype of victimization in later life limited to victim–perpetrator relationships, where the perpetrator has assumed responsibility for the victim, the victim puts trust in the offender, or the role assigned to the offending person creates the perception and expectation that the victim may trust the perpetrator. Vulnerability is identified as a key variable in EA/MOA theory and research. With regard to neglect, the mere possibility of being neglected presupposes a heightened level of vulnerability. Power imbalance often characterizes victim – perpetrator relationships but is not a necessary characteristic of abuse.

Conclusion: Research on EA/MOA needs conceptual development. Confining phenomena of EA/MOA to specific relationships and tying them to notions of vulnerability has implications for research design and sampling and points to the limits of population-based victimization surveys.

Corresponding author
Correspondence should be addressed to: Thomas Goergen, PhD, Department of Criminology and Crime Prevention, German Police University, Zum Roten Berge 18-24, D-48165 Muenster, Germany. Phone: +49-2501-806327; Fax: +49-2501-806460. Email:
Hide All
Action on Elder Abuse. (1995). Action on Elder Abuse's Definition of Elder Abuse. London: Action on Elder Abuse.
Aday L. A. (2001). At Risk in America, 2nd edn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Asher L., Aresu M., Falaschetti E. and Mindell J. (2012). Most older pedestrians are unable to cross the road in time: a cross-sectional study. Age and Ageing, 41, 690694.
Asp E., Manzel K., Koestner B., Cole C. A., Denburg N. L. and Tranel D. (2012). A neuropsychological test of belief and doubt: damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex increases credulity for misleading advertising. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 6, 100. doi:10.3389/fnins.2012.00100.
Baltes P. B. and Smith J. (1999). Multilevel and systemic analyses of old age: theoretical and empirical evidence for a fourth age. In Bengtson V. L. and Schaie K. W. (eds.), Handbook of Theories of Aging (pp. 153173). New York: Springer.
Baltes P. B. and Smith J. (2003). New frontiers in the future of aging: from successful aging of the young old to the dilemmas of the fourth age. Gerontology, 49, 123135.
Berlau D. J., Corrada M. M. and Kawas C. (2009). The prevalence of disability in the oldest-old is high and continues to increase with age: findings from the 90+ study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24, 12171225.
Biggs S. and Haapala I. (2010). Theoretical development and elder mistreatment: spreading awareness and conceptual complexity in examining the management of socio-emotional boundaries. Ageing International, 35, 171184.
Bonnie R. J. and Wallace R. B. (eds.). (2003). Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation in an Aging America. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Christensen K., Doblhammer G., Rau R. and Vaupel J. W. (2009). Ageing populations: the challenges ahead. Lancet, 374, 11961208.
Cohen C. A. (2008). Consumer fraud and dementia – lessons learned from conmen. Dementia, 7, 283285.
Cohen L. E. and Felson M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: a routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44, 588605.
Commission des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse. (2001). L'exploitation des Personnes Âgées: Vers un Filet de Protection Resserré. Québec, Canada: Publications du Québec.
Dannefer D. (2003). Cumulative advantage/disadvantage and the life course: cross-fertilizing age and social science theory. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, 327337.
Dixon al. (2010). Defining elder mistreatment: reflections on the United Kingdom study of abuse and neglect of older people. Ageing & Society, 30, 403420.
Felson M. and Boba R. (2010). Crime and Everyday Life, 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ferraro K. F. and Shippee T. P. (2009). Aging and cumulative inequality: how does inequality get under the skin? Gerontologist, 49, 333343.
Fulmer al. (2005). Dyadic vulnerability and risk profiling for elder neglect. Gerontologist, 45, 525534.
Gerstorf D., Smith J. and Baltes P. B. (2006). A systemic-wholistic approach to differential aging: longitudinal findings from the Berlin Aging Study. Psychology and Aging, 21, 645663.
Goergen T. and Beaulieu M. (2010). Criminological theory and elder abuse research – fruitful relationship or worlds apart? Ageing International, 35, 185201.
Gravel S., Lithwick M. and Beaulieu M. (1997). Quand vieillir ensemble fait mal; les mauvais traitements dans les couples aînés. Criminologie, 30, 6785.
Heise L. and Garcia-Moreno C. (2002). Violence by intimate partners. In Krug E. G., Dahlberg L. L., Mercy J., Zwi A. B. and Lozano R. (eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 87121). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
Hollis C. and McDougal L. (2003). Fifty-One Experiments in Combating Elder Abuse: A Survey of State Criminal Laws Relating to Elder Abuse and Mandatory Reporting. Alexandria, VA: American Prosecutors Research Institute.
Iborra I. (2008). Elder abuse in the family in Spain. Available at; last accessed 30 July 2012.
Jennings W. G., Piquero A. R. and Reingle J. M. (2012). On the overlap between victimization and offending: a review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 1626.
Jones R. and Elliott T. (2005). Capacity to give evidence in court: issues that may arise when a client with dementia is a victim of crime. Psychiatric Bulletin, 29, 324326.
Kassebaum U. B. (2004). Interpersonelles Vertrauen: Entwicklung eines Inventars zur Erfassung spezifischer Aspekte des Konstrukts. PhD thesis, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Available at:; last accessed 31 July 2012.
Luhmann N. (1988). Familiarity, confidence, trust: problems and alternatives. In Gambetta D. (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations (pp. 94107). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Manini T. M. and Pahor M. (2009). Physical activity and maintaining physical function in older adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43, 2831.
Moen P., Flood S. M. and Louis V. (2009). The third way? Older workers’ and younger retirees’ time in paid work and civic engagement. Paper presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Detroit, MI, 29 April 2009.
Morrone A., Scrivens K., Smith C. and Balestra C. (2011). Measuring vulnerability and resilience in OECD countries. Paper prepared for the IARIW-OECD Conference on Economic Insecurity, Paris, France, 2223 November 2011. Available at:; last accessed 12 August 2012.
Mulroy M. and O'Neill D. (2011). Elder abuse extends beyond health and social care to the financial and legal sectors. British Medical Journal, 343, 756757.
Murray E. al. (2011). Gender and life course occupational social class differences in trajectories of functional limitations in midlife: findings from the 1946 British birth cohort. Journals of Gerontology Series A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 66, 13501359.
Naegele B., Boehm U., Goergen T., Kotlenga S. and Petermann F. (2011). Partnergewalt Gegen Ältere Frauen. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft.
Nerenberg L. (2008). Elder Abuse Prevention: Emerging Trends and Promising Strategies. New York: Springer.
O'Keefe al. (2007). UK Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People: Prevalence Survey Report. London: National Centre for Social Research.
Reis M. (2000). The IOA Screen: an abuse-alert measure that dispels myths. Generations, 24, 1316.
Riegelsberger J. (2005). Trust in Mediated Interactions. PhD thesis, University of London, London.
Roisman G. I. (2005). Conceptual clarifications in the study of resilience. American Psychologist, 60, 264265.
Roth D. L., Perkins M., Wadley V. G., Temple E. and Haley W. E. (2009). Family caregiving and emotional strain: associations with psychological health in a national sample of community-dwelling middle-aged and older adults. Quality of Life Research, 18, 679688.
Schroeder-Butterfill E. and Marianti R. (2006). A framework for understanding old-age vulnerabilities. Aging and Society, 26, 935.
Smith J. and Gerstorf D. (2006). Ageing differently: potential and limits. In Daatland S. O. and Biggs S. (eds.), Ageing and Diversity: Multiple Pathways and Cultural Migrations (pp. 1328). Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Spiers J. (2000). New perspectives on vulnerability using emic and etic approaches. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31, 715721.
Straka S. M. and Montminy L. (2006). Responding to the needs of older women experiencing domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 12, 251267.
Truman J. L. (2011). Criminal Victimization, 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice – Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Turner B. al. (2003). A framework for vulnerability analysis in sustainability science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100, 80748079.
Wilke D. J. and Vinton L. (2005). The nature and impact of domestic violence across age cohorts. Affilia, 20, 316328.
Wilkie R., Thomas E., Mottram S., Peat G. and Croft P. (2008). Onset and persistence of person-perceived participation restriction in older adults: a 3-year follow-up study in the general population. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 6, 92. doi:10.1186/1477-7525-6-92.
Wolff J. L. and Kasper J. D. (2006). Caregivers of frail elders: updating a national profile. Gerontologist, 46, 344356.
World Health Organization. (2008). A Global Response to Elder Abuse and Neglect. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Psychogeriatrics
  • ISSN: 1041-6102
  • EISSN: 1741-203X
  • URL: /core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 8
Total number of PDF views: 69 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 328 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.