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HONORING BONNIE BRANDL AND RISA BRECKMAN: STARS IN THE FIELD OF ELDER ABUSE


By Georgia J. Anetzberger, PhD, ACSW, LISW

I was a star gazer growing up, looking up at the sky on clear nights, noticing the formations above me. In doing so, I was struck by the concept of “twin stars”, born in the same stellar nursery, flung out on their own into the galaxy, to remain apart but never far away.

From my perspective, Bonnie Brandl and Risa Breckman are like twin stars, with common beginnings, but each shining in her own space, coming together at times, as binary pairs might, but always with unique perspectives and contributions to offer. What this has meant for the field of elder abuse is something bright and beautiful, and often transformative. It is no wonder the National Center on Elder Abuse selected them as Lights of Joy for our past holiday season. They are that, and much, much more.

Risa retired last month as founder and Director of the New York City Elder Abuse Center and Bonnie, this month, as founder and Director of the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life. The announcement of their pending job departures reached me on the same day, unintentional but perhaps not surprising for stars in our field having so much in common and a long shared history.

Both Bonnie and Risa are social workers, around the same age, who began as victim advocates in domestic violence programming in 1982, the former in Wisconsin and the latter in New York. They met a decade later at the first national forum to link abused elders and older battered women, convened by AARP in Washington, DC. By then both had begun to focus on elder abuse. Recalling that meeting, Bonnie remembers Risa as someone who was intellectually challenging, asking “all the right questions”, and insuring the importance of research was not overlooked. Risa remembers Bonnie as someone committed to quality work, whether it involved training materials or practice guidelines, and an advocate who believed that everyone who “should be at the table” in fact be there.

I have marveled at these pioneers in our field for years. Each has made major contributions, ones that are surely enduring. For example, Bonnie is a story teller, whose video projects with Terra Nova Films and other partners, such as In Their Own Words and Lifting Up Voices, have transformed our thinking about those who experience elder abuse from “victims” to “survivors”, with inspiring resiliency and courage. For many, people like “Miss Mary” became not just someone on the screen but potentially our grandmothers, mothers, or even us. Risa is a collaborator, whose work has elevated the importance of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) and networks in elder abuse work through a national forum on the subject, creation and spread of Enhanced MDTs, and co-founding the National Network of State Elder Justice Coalitions. She also has promoted the inclusion of practitioner perspectives in elder abuse research and led in an empirical understanding of the impact of non-abusing family, friends, and neighbors in the lives of elder abuse victims.

However, not all of their contributions were done apart. Some were undertaken together, perhaps most notably the Elder Justice Roadmap (a national strategic plan “by the field, for the field”) and Working with Older Elder Survivors of Abuse: A Framework for Advocates (a report and video series). It should not be surprising, given their backgrounds as social workers, with community organization and program development leanings, that both Bonnie and Risa embrace roles as facilitators, helping to move others in needed directions, and undertake activities that have societal meaning. Neither had a predetermined path to make this happen, but both are grateful and humbled that it did.

In a Zoom interview to enable the creation of this blog, I was struck by how quickly and easily the conversation with Bonnie and Risa seemed to move in the direction of recognizing and crediting each other or other people, rather than themselves. It was clear by the end that they may be stars in the field of elder abuse, but Bonnie and Risa saw their purpose to shine the light on others. Undoubtedly it is why they have individually and collectively “made such a difference”.

Not only a star gazer, I also was a fan of poetry growing up. One of my favorites brings me in mind of Bonnie and Risa, who they are and the gifts they have bestowed. It is titled “Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost, and ends as follows:

It asks of us a certain height

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may choose something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.


Georgia J. Anetzberger, PhD, ACSW, LISW has been active in the field of elder abuse for over forty-five years as a practitioner, planner, administrator, researcher, and educator. 

Dr. Anetzberger conducted pioneering research on such subjects as elder abuse perpetrators and cultural variation in meaning or response to elder abuse; authored more than eighty scholarly publications on elder abuse or related interventions, including the books The Etiology of Elder Abuse by Adult Offspring and The Clinical Management of Elder Abuse; was the architect of Ohio’s adult protective services law and select subsequent amendments; and led in the establishment of the oldest state and local elder abuse networks in the United States.  She has received many awards for her work in this field, including the 2005 Rosalie S. Wolf Memorial Elder Abuse Prevention Award—National Category and 2017 NASW Social Work Pioneer designation. 

Currently Dr. Anetzberger is a consultant in private practice, Adjunct Faculty in the Schools of Medicine and Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, and Fellow in the Gerontological Society of America.  She also is a member of the Advisory Board to the National Center on Elder Abuse, Past-President of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and immediate Past-Editor of the Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect.

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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.