Building Awareness About Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation

By by Kerry Burnight

The guy sitting next to me on my last airplane trip was painstakingly reviewing a research manuscript. When he got up to use the restroom, I admit to glancing down at his seat tray which was not in its upright and locked position. The title? Lies We Tell Ourselves: A Research Review. I used the last few minutes of the flight to quietly ask, “What’s the biggest lie we tell ourselves?” Without hesitation or visible irritation at my peeking, he said, “When I have more time I will do X (insert the thing you love here)”.

Not long after that, a colleague lamented, “It’s so hard to raise awareness about elder abuse because people don’t care about older adults.” Self-lie radar alert.

All of us who work with older adults who have endured elder abuse see awful things. However, the truth is people care about older adults. In fact, research shows that we have strong feelings about our elders: Love, loyalty, impatience, admiration, guilt, anger, and fear. What’s more, these feelings are tangled in the ageism that resides within each of us.

The problem is that our public awareness efforts have not tapped into these feelings. We tout statistics, but have yet to significantly connect them to our cause – the elimination of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation – with the very real and conflicted feelings we each hold.

This brings us back to self-lie number one: “When I have more time, I will come up with a smart, sophisticated, meaningful way to raise awareness about elder abuse.”

We will never have more time. Instead, each one of us needs to stop, dig deep and come up with big and small ways that we can prevent elder abuse and raise awareness by tapping into feelings about elders and our own aging.

Here are some big ways to spread awareness:

  • Be the first to talk about elder abuse on Ted Talks – right now there are zero.
  • Correct Wikipedia’s description of elder abuse.
  • Write to The TODAY Show suggesting (insisting) that they do a segment on it, and then offer to be the guest.
  • Submit a piece to The Huffington Post.
  • Host a World Elder Abuse Awareness Event in your community.
  • Allow yourself to be led by older adults.

And in smaller, but equally important ways:

  • Speak at your kid’s school about aging with dignity.
  • Tell your hairdresser about elder abuse.
  • Ask your film student friend to do a documentary on elder abuse.
  • Go to the Administration on Community Living World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2015 site and print materials to distribute (There is a flyer designed for you to put up at your favorite caffeine watering hole.)
  • Join Ageless Alliance: United Against Elder Abuse.
  • Post information about elder abuse prevention on your website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

A word about social media – let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that it’s all we need to do. Today, a single email can launch a movement, but as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci research reveals, even though online activism is easy to grow, it often doesn’t last. Why? She compares modern movements to the civil rights movement, and uncovers the surprising benefit of working (hard) together.

In Alabama in 1955, citizens mimeographed 52,000 leaflets by working all night. They then used the 68 African-American organizations to distribute those leaflets by hand. All the while, they had to get to work and care for their families. People had to figure out how to think together, act collectively, develop strong policy proposals, create consensus, figure out the political steps and relate them to leverage…

Sound familiar? Let’s do it. Let’s connect organizations and work together to raise awareness and action among Americans of all ages in order to identify, eliminate, and prevent elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Together we can do it, and that’s no lie.

-Kerry Burnight, PhD

About the Author: Kerry Burnight is a Professor of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at the University of California, Irvine where she has served for 15 years. Burnight is the Director and co-founder of the nation’s first Elder Abuse Forensic Center, where her team of law enforcement officers, physicians, attorneys, and social workers have served over 1,000 older adults. Her research focuses on the medical forensic aspects of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and on innovative approaches to addressing and preventing abuse. She founded Ageless Alliance in 2012 to bring people of all ages together to take a stand against elder abuse. Burnight was recognized for her work by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 (U.S. Victims of Crime Award) and has appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and Headline News.


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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.