Media Releases

New study finds elders living alone with abuser more likely to endure severe mistreatment

March 3, 2016

Other findings: Non-perpetrators in the home act as a buffer and “youngest old” experience most severe forms of abuse

Toron­to, ON – A new study exam­in­ing elder abuse–released today by researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, and Weill-Cor­nell Med­ical College–has found that old­er adult vic­tims liv­ing alone with their abuser were up to four times more like­ly to endure more severe lev­els of mis­treat­ment. The study sug­gests that the addi­tion of non-per­pe­tra­tors also liv­ing in the home played a pro­tec­tive func­tion to buffer sever­i­ty.

“Old­er adults are par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to severe mis­treat­ment when the abuser has unre­strict­ed and unin­hib­it­ed access to the vic­tim”, said co-author Dr. Karl Pille­mer, Hazel E. Reed Pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell University’s Depart­ment of Human Devel­op­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Geron­tol­ogy at the Weill Cor­nell Med­ical Col­lege.

Research on old­er adults tends to cat­e­go­rize sub­jects accord­ing to dif­fer­ent age groups, includ­ing the “youngest old” (ages 60 to 74) and the “old­est old” (ages 85 and up). One sur­pris­ing find­ing was that across each type of elder abuse, it was the “youngest old” who expe­ri­enced the most severe forms of mis­treat­ment.

“These find­ings chal­lenge the pre­vail­ing belief that the old­est old are more vul­ner­a­ble to the most severe forms of elder abuse, although we need more research that includes old­er adults with cog­ni­tive impair­ment and those liv­ing in long-term care set­tings,” said co-author Dr. Mark Lachs, Psaty Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Med­i­cine and Co-Chief of Geri­atrics at the Weill Cor­nell Med­ical Col­lege and Direc­tor of Geri­atrics at the New York Pres­by­ter­ian Health Sys­tem.

“Pre­vi­ous stud­ies on elder abuse have found that approx­i­mate­ly one in ten old­er adults expe­ri­ence some form of elder abuse,” says lead author Dr. David Burnes, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Fac­tor-Inwen­tash Fac­ul­ty of Social Work. “As the pop­u­la­tion of old­er adults in North Amer­i­ca near­ly dou­bles over the next 25 years, this prob­lem will just get big­ger. Old­er adults who are abused have short­er lifes­pans, and are more like­ly to be hos­pi­tal­ized and expe­ri­ence men­tal health issues.”

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have large­ly explored elder abuse in gen­er­al yes/no terms, but this study exam­ined dif­fer­ent forms of elder abuse along a con­tin­u­um of sever­i­ty. “We know that the yes/no char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of elder abuse does not cap­ture the com­plex, lived real­i­ty of mis­treat­ment or align with the way clin­i­cians exam­ine and inter­vene on the prob­lem”, says the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Dr. David Burnes.

Data for the study came from a large-scale, rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of 4,156 cog­ni­tive­ly intact, com­mu­ni­ty-dwelling old­er adults across New York State. Among old­er adults report­ing phys­i­cal abuse since age 60, more than two-thirds (62 per cent) report­ed being abused in the past year and 11 per cent expe­ri­enced over ten phys­i­cal­ly abu­sive events in the past year.

The study was pub­lished online in the peer-reviewed jour­nal The Geron­tol­o­gist, and will lat­er be pub­lished in the print edi­tion:


Media con­tact:

David P.R. Burnes, BSc, MSW, PhD
Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Fac­tor-Inwen­tash Fac­ul­ty of Social Work
Cell: (416) 258‑6523

Dominic Ali
Media Rela­tions Offi­cer, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: (416) 978‑6974