By Katie Block, MSW, MPH and Sara Mayer, MA
May 27, 2020
Katie Block, MSW, MPH
National Resource Center for Reaching Victims Project Coordinator
National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life
Sara Mayer, MA
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Solidarity. The 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 Lessons. Journal 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.
 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/