Abuse, in any form, is an egregious act against another person. While the specific definition of abuse can vary by jurisdiction, it is most simplistically understood to be actions of omission or commission against another person (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000). Specific categories of maltreatment are numerous and range from psychological abuse to physical abuse. Historically, the focus of abuse and abuse prevention has been on children. Legislation associated with child abuse prevention and mandated reporting has served as the foundation of the focus of elder abuse. In an examination of child and elder abuse, it is easiest to see and understand the similarities associated with the two. Important; however, recognizing the differences that exist between them as these differences are relevant in understanding cause and thus interventions strategies that can be used to combat the issue.

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The similarities that exist between child and elder abuse are the most obvious. Both types of abuse involve the mistreatment of members of vulnerable populations (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000). These specific demographics are generally dependent on the care of others for survival, making them more susceptible to victimization. Further, both demographics are generally victimized by members of their family who reside with them (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000). As it relates to legislation, both child and elder abuse require that abuse be reported through specific channels. While the similarities abound, the differences are stark in comparison.

The differences between child and elder abuse are numerous in comparison to the similarities. Firstly, the actual extent to which elder abuse actually occurs is not known is a lack of agreement concerning the exact definition of “elder abuse” (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000). This creates even more ambiguity from the legal perspective when compounded by the fact that, under the law, children automatically have an incompetency status that the elderly do not have. As a result, the elder retains the right to be responsible for their own protection, resulting in many elders remaining in abusive environments due to what they perceive to be a lack of alternate options. As it relates to intervention efforts, the assessment of elderly abuse risk by a family member is far less formalized than for other types of domestic violence victims (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000).

Of note is that with both child and elderly abuse, there appears to be a cycle that can form in families in which such actions occur. This has led many researchers to believe that there are intergenerational risks of abuse. Risk factors concerning child abuse, for example include the development of maladaptive representational models that parents develop as a result of their own childhood experiences which are internalized and integrated into their own self-structures that guide their parenting behaviors (Schiamberg & Gans, 2000). There is also research that suggests that risk factors are evident in social learning and socialization practices. Still, research has also suggested that intergenerational risk factors may be influenced by genetics that are associated with a person’s temperament and personality (McCloskey & Bailey, 2000).

While the aforementioned intergenerational factors consider, to some extent, the role of environment as it relates to abuse, presented by Urie Bronfenbrenner is a theory known as the Human Ecology Theory that takes on a more expansive explanation of the role of environment. Specifically, this theory posits that human developed is influenced by different types of environmental systems (McCloskey & Bailey, 2000). The systems presented are the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, microsystem, and chronosystem. Within the macrosystem (includes cultural beliefs and economic factors), there has been inconsistent findings associated with the prevalence of abuse as with many of the other systems when examined alone. Research concerning the mesosystem has yielded the commonly noted variable of family structure as being associated with abuse. Concerning the microsystem, the characteristics of family members (i.e. drug and alcohol abuse) have proven relevant as well as past abuse experiences of the parents (McCloskey & Bailey, 2000). The point made by Bronfenbrenner is that while there are sources of influence that can contribute independently to the development of abuse, it is also the intersection of various sources that shape the environment in which a person lives, which exerts a strong influences on how a person matures (McCloskey & Bailey, 2000).

  • McCloskey, L. & Bailey, J. (2000). The intergenerational transmission of risk for child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15(10), 1019-1035.
  • Schiamberg, L. & Gans, D. (2000). Elder abuse by adult children: An applied ecological framework for understanding contextual risk factors and the intergenerational character if quality of life. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 50(4), 329-359.