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Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America
establish a new system. Instead, they decided to continue trying to raise awareness of the problem.
In 1981, Congress proposed legislation to establish a national center on elder abuse, but the bill never reached the floor of Congress. Finally, in 1989, Claude Pepper introduced that proposal as an amendment to the Older Americans Act. The national center was funded the following year and began the federal government’s specific commitment to this area, albeit with very small amounts of money. But at least elder abuse had been recognized in federal legislation.
Initially the conceptualization of this issue was not of adults needing protection and safety. It became an aging issue, whereas initially the response involved public welfare and the social services and legal services. By gaining the interest of the aging network, a larger constituency of interested people became involved.
It is interesting that the emphasis was on elder abuse and abused elders in the context of caregiving. The portrait of the problem was that of an impaired victim, usually an elderly parent being cared for by an adult caregiver, who wasn’t able to manage the caregiving because of stresses in life, job, family, and so forth.
This picture of elder abuse seemed to resonate with Congress. The media really helped to promote this issue. Together the media and Congress provided the real push for interest in this problem.
In the 1980s, Surgeon General Louis Sullivan held a workshop on family violence, declaring it to be a public health and criminal justice issue that included the problems of elder abuse and neglect. Elder abuse was included under the umbrella of family violence. That had a very positive effect, because it brought in the medical community, and the criminal justice community and broadened the range of constituency groups interested in the topic
This was a real positive step forward. Sometimes the social service people are concerned about the so-called criminalization of the issue, but in terms of the breadth and depth of interest, it was a very positive step.
A number of theories have been promoted or proposed to explain elder abuse (Phillips, 1986). I’m not going to review them in depth, but I want to focus specifically on the “situational theory” because it represented a particularly popular theory in relation to the image of the overburdened caregiver. It is true that some caregivers are overburdened, and it is true that some of them do abuse or neglect the person for whom they are caring. When you look at some of the cases and some of the studies, you see perpetrators who are caregivers and who show a history of emotional