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Confronting Ageism, Racism, and Abuse in Later Life During COVID-19


By Katie Block, MSW, MPH and Sara Mayer, MA

Katie Block, MSW, MPH
National Resource Center for Reaching Victims Project Coordinator
National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life

Sara Mayer, MA
Communications Coordinator
National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, older adult victims of crime and abuse experienced unique challenges and systemic barriers to accessing healing and justice services. The pandemic has exacerbated these barriers and created new challenges for older survivors in addition to the added stress and trauma of being higher risk for contracting and suffering from COVID-19.

Tragically, as we ready ourselves for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2020, we’re also coming to terms with the fact that elder abuse is on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog will highlight a few of the abuser tactics, namely isolation, manipulation, and targeting vulnerabilities, and some of the systemic barriers, ageism and racism, that are putting older adults at greater risk for harm during this time of national crisis. We’ll also offer tangible action steps and resources for ways to reach and support older victims. Finally, we’ve pulled together a short selection of current articles, op-eds, and research briefs around this emerging topic that help frame out some of the challenges faced by older adults and older victims right now.

Isolation

While physical distancing is required to keep everyone safe during this global pandemic, isolation is a major risk factor for elder abuse and abuse in later life.

Manipulation

Abusers may use psychological or emotional threats relative to an older adult’s health and wellbeing to manipulate that person into thinking that they will be unable to safely navigate the pandemic without the abuser’s help.

Targeting Vulnerabilities

With shelter-in-place orders, more older individuals may now be dependent upon others for critical in-home health and social services. Abusers may capitalize on these vulnerabilities to exert power and control over an older adult.

Ageism

“Ageism and the decline narrative of aging — the notion that getting older means decline, deterioration, decay and dependency — were around before the pandemic, of course. But outbursts in social media and on cable TV as well as COVID-19 health care guidelines from government officials, medical professionals and ethicists have made these views more public and, if you will, more virulent.” This increase in ageist language creates a dangerous “us vs. them” divide, painting older adults as disposable, too vulnerable, and not worthy of receiving medical attention.

Racism

Since January 2020, there’s been a worldwide spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. In the U.S., racist rhetoric and violent crimes targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have, too, surged.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also amplified systemic racism.  Older black and Latinx people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, and this is not because of the virus, but due to systemic inequity when it comes to fair housing markets, access to quality healthcare, and employment practices. These disparities culminate into increased risk for comorbidities, exacerbating the risk of death when contracting COVID-19. Tribal communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. On May 16, as reported by NPR,  the Navajo people, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., surpassed New York with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. $8 billion was designated by the CARES Act to help tribal communities whose tax bases were reduced to nearly zero with stay-at-home orders in place, but these dollars were delayed more than one month before funds started to be allocated. Without federal support, tribal governments lack the resources to run health clinics and provide necessary medical care to those who need it.

Ultimately, systemic racist oppression and ageism bleed into older survivors’ capacity to access services and supports when they are experiencing abuse while physically distancing from the community.

Following are some strategies and resources for supporting older adults and survivors during COVID-19.

  1. Keep connected with tele-advocacy. Now more than ever it is important to maintain connection with older adults, including older survivors. Connect in the best and safest way that works for the survivor, whether that’s over the phone, via text, or video chat. Check in with survivors on how they can safely stay connected with their family and community members. Visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s COVID-19 Resources page to get information on different technology tools available to have safe and confidential conversations with survivors. Also be sure to check out the National Center on Elder Abuse’s Tuesday Tips for information, resources, and practical tips to consider to remain socially connected with older adults while practicing physical distancing.
  2. Develop safe communications and connections pathways. Strategize with people as you would while safety planning on what safe communication and connection looks like for them at this time. Rely on credible resources such as the Elder Care Locator (1-800-677-1116) to locate help in your area, such as meal delivery, transportation, or credible phone reassurance programs. Be creative in building relationships with organizations that may not usually work with victims but may be touchstones for folks in their own communities.
  3. Call on faith leaders to connect with survivors. 89% of older adults look to faith as a source of strength, resilience, and connection. Build connections with faith leaders in your community or call on existing relationships to support faith leaders in reaching out to older adults in their communities. Email this letter to give faith leaders tangible action steps they can take to stay better connected with older adults and mitigate their risk of abuse. 
  4. Stay up to date on COVID-19 scams. Some people are leveraging the fear around the pandemic to scare, manipulate, and defraud others. The Federal Trade Commission website can help you stay up to date on the different scams popping up related to the virus and the Institute on Aging offers guidance in different languages on COVID-19 scams. Stay informed and check often as new information arises related to scams. If you come across suspicious activity, file a report at the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.
  5. Denounce ageism and racism. Acknowledge the impact of ageist, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric and actions on older adults and speak out against these dangerous biases. Many states have established hotlines for reporting hate crimes. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council has created a website, Stop AAPI Hate, for reporting hate crimes and incident report forms are available in Traditional and Simplified Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Punjabi. Keep yourself informed on the impacts of race-based disparities being amplified during the pandemic. The African American Policy Forum hosts a weekly conversation, Under The Blacklight, amplifying these systemic issues and offering ways towards transformation. Contact Red Wind Consulting, Inc. for support and consultation on COVID-19 issues in tribal communities.
  6. Use an intersectional framework and prioritize the needs of folks in the margins. Use a whole-person centered approach to discussing needs when connecting with older survivors. Consider the intersections of their identities and the implications of the overlapping oppressions that are currently getting in the way of accessing supports. Visit the National Resource Center on Reaching Victims and Diverse Elders Coalition COVID-19 Community Resources page for more information on how to support survivors in the margins.
  7. Lift up the voices of older survivors. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD), June 15th, is one of many opportunities for older survivors to share their perspectives and experiences. This year, WEAAD events will be held virtually. While accessibility looks different it is no less vital. NCALL collaborated with The National Center on Elder Abuse to develop an array of materials to assist communities in creating safe and accessible virtual events for WEAAD.  Learn how communities can get involved in lifting up voices of older survivors at a distance.
  8. Join a community, build knowledge, and enhance capacity. In partnership with the OVC National Resource Center for Reaching Victims, NCALL recently launched an online forum for educators and trainers in the field of abuse in later life, elder abuse, and victim services.  This community will work together to build knowledge and enhance capacity across the field to educate professionals on the unique service needs of older victims. Sign up today to become a part of this emerging community.
  9. Self-care is critical. Program managers must be mindful of the emotional toll for professionals and volunteers who are used to being able to help, but now struggle with additional barriers to reach victims and survivors. Utilize different grounding and self-care tools to minimize the trauma impact of being a support person in the midst of a pandemic. Visit the COVID-19 resources page for the National Resource Center for Reaching Victims for different webinars on grounding tools, as well as additional tools for effectively and safely providing tele-advocacy.

Selected Articles Related to Challenges Faced by Older Adults and Older Survivors During COVID-19

Aronson, L.  Ageism Is Making the Pandemic Worse. The disregard for the elderly that’s woven into American culture is hurting everyone. The Atlantic, March 28, 2020.

Ayalon, L., Chasteen, A., Diehl, M., Levy, B., Neupert, S. D., Rothermund, K., … & Wahl, H. W. (2020). Aging in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Avoiding Ageism and Fostering Intergenerational SolidarityThe Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

Chen, D. Life at the Intersection: Older Adults Need a Response to COVID-19 Grounded in Equity. Justice in Aging, March 27, 2020.

Chin, J. L., Crisis Leadership: The Coronavirus Pandemic and Xenophobia. What leaders need to do. Psychology Today, March 17, 2020.

Eisenberg, R. Will COVID-19 Make the Decline Narrative of Aging Worse? What experts in aging think the future holds for boomer bashing. Next Avenue, May 8, 2020.

Elman, A., Breckman, R., Clark, S., Gottesman, E., Rachmuth, L., Reiff, M., … & Lok, D. (2020). Effects of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Elder Mistreatment and Response in New York City: Initial LessonsJournal of Applied Gerontology, May 8, 2020.

Han, S.D., and Mosqueda, L. (2020). Elder Abuse in the COVID-19 Era.  Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Mineo, L. For Native Americans, COVID-19 is ‘the worst of both worlds at the same time’, The Harvard Gazette, May 8, 2020.

Santilli, M. In Navajo Nation, Women Are on the Front Lines of COVID-19, Marie Claire, May 15, 2020.

Yoran, V. Just Because I’m 90 Doesn’t Mean I’m Ready To Die ― Or Disposable. Huffington Post, April 29, 2020.


[1] Eisenberg, R. “Will COVID-19 Make the Decline Narrative of Aging Worse? What experts in aging think the future holds for boomer bashing.” Next Avenue, May 8, 2020. https://www.nextavenue.org/covid-19-decline-narrative-of-aging/

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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.