Where Faith and Safety Meet: Partnering with Faith Communities to Increase Elder Justice

By Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter

January 19, 2023

I have been a faith leader for many years, so I remember with fondness congregations from Arizona and New Mexico to New Jersey and Massachusetts. In all these places, I have seen faith communities celebrate and revere older adults, and with good reason: older adults are leaders, they embody the congregation’s history and resilience, and they teach and inspire the next generation.

In fact, older adults top the charts on attendance at religious services and events. In the 2014 Religious Landscape Study from the Pew Research Center, 48% of those 65 years and older reported attending services and events at least once per week, and an additional 25% attended one to two times per month or a few times per year. Of those 65+ years in age, 91% were affiliated with a particular faith tradition, while 65% pray daily and 42% read or study scripture daily.[i] Simply put, faith and spirituality are important to older adults.

That said, it should come as no surprise that older adults, especially if they are members of minority communities, report that if they were facing abuse, their “’first stop’ would be a member of the clergy if they were to discuss their domestic violence with anyone.”[ii] Another study reported that “older women would seek help from a place of worship if they experienced abuse.”[iii] Older adults trust and feel safe in their faith communities.

As you know, trust and safety are not always the rule in the lives of older adults. At least 1 in 10 will face abuse of some kind as they age, and an even higher percentage of older adults with dementia may be affected.

I have seen older adults affected by abuse in my own congregation, and it is heartbreaking and painfully difficult to figure out how to respond. Everyone deserves to be safe, but how do we provide the resources, training, and information necessary to make each and every faith community across the U.S., the Tribal Nations, and the U.S. Territories a haven of safety for older adults?

The agency I work for, Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse (Safe Havens), has been tackling that question since 2008. You can check out our website for resources about elder abuse designed especially for faith communities and service providers who are partnering with faith communities. From bookmarks to bathroom flyers to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day articles for faith community newsletters, Safe Havens has developed concise, effective resources that I wish I had had when I was leading a congregation.

These unique resources are the fruit of some wonderful partnerships. It has been Safe Havens’ honor to collaborate with and learn from the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL) since 2008. More recently, we have also built a partnership with the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). In addition, we have learned so much over the years from APS, advocates, researchers and others in the field of elder abuse, and, most importantly, from faithful older survivors who never hesitate to ask, “are you bringing our faith leaders and faith communities to the table?”

Safe Havens resources are groundbreaking because they are designed to spread the word about elder abuse to everyone in the faith community, from the faith leader to the music director to the volunteer working on the blood donation drive. Anyone could be approached by an older adult for help. Everyone should know what elder abuse is and how to provide support, information, and referrals.

Faith leaders will never be experts on abuse, nor will service providers become experts on faith. However, we all have our unique and critically important roles to play. Community-wide collaborations allow Safe Havens to model what we hope faith communities and faith leaders will do: work together with community experts to increase safety for older adults.

So, if you are a faith leader, please seek out training on elder abuse, check out the resources, call Safe Havens for support, and build working relationships with your local advocates, APS, service providers, and Council on Aging. You can learn to provide referrals to these life-saving services as well as spiritual care and support. As faith leaders, our partnerships with local community experts can help an older survivor of abuse find safety.

If you are a service provider, APS, advocate, law enforcement, or allied professional, I hope you will include faith leaders and faith communities in your partnerships as well. Faith is critically important to many older adults, and a faith community may be the first place they turn for help. When faith leaders receive training and resources, they can respond with compassion to older adults who reach out for help, work with you to expand the community safety network, and increase access to your services.

And, if you are a funder, please consider the importance of these neighborhood and community linkages in keeping all older adults safe. This work takes time and is labor-intensive. It is an often overlooked but critically important component of safety and justice for older adults, and it needs and deserves your support.
Together, we can build communities where faith and safety meet.

National Center on Elder Abuse X Safe Havens, “Bringing Together Faith and Safety for Older Adults” brochure Version 1 | Version 2
National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, www.ncall.us
Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse, www.interfaithpartners.org

[i] Pew Research Center, 2014 Religious Landscape Study/Age Distribution, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/age-distribution/

[ii] “Barriers to Help-Seeking for Older Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence: A Descriptive Model,” by Richard Beaulaurier, Laura Seff, and Frederick Newman, in Journal of Women and Aging, Vol. 20 (3/4), 2008, pp. 240-241.

[iii] “Elder Abuse Awareness in Faith Communities: Findings from a Canadian Pilot Study,” by Elizabeth Podnieks, Ed.D., R.N; and Sue Wilson, Ph.D., in Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 15, No. 3/4, 2003, p. 123.