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Elder Abuse: The Role of Church Leaders

"My eyes are fixed on you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless. Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me, and from the snares of evildoers. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass by in safety" (Psalm 141:8-10).

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In a society that does not value aging and growing older, people can become indifferent to the needs and well-being of its older members. As the older adult population has grown steadily over the years, the incidence of elder abuse perpetrated against them has grown along with their numbers. When we consider that the older adult population in the united states is projected to grow to 72 million by 2030 (and one out of every five people will be 65 years of age or older), the potential for widespread abuse becomes alarming.

When older people become dependent on someone else to care for their needs and to perform basic tasks that they can no longer do for themselves, they become vulnerable to occurrences of elder abuse.

Every day, headlines throughout the United States paint a grim picture of older adults who have been abused, neglected, and exploited, often by people they trust most. Abusers may be spouses, family members, personal acquaintances (such as neighbors and other church members), or professionals in positions of trust; or opportunistic strangers who prey on the vulnerable. Even the new Health Care Reform has opened the door to various scams, as older people become victims of financial exploitation.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, elder abuse refers to any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. State laws vary on the specifics; however, broadly defined abuse may be:

  • Financial: the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property or assets of a vulnerable elder.
  • Physical: inflicting, or threatening to inflict, physical pain or injury on a vulnerable elder or depriving an elder of a basic need.
  • Emotional: inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
  • Neglect: refusal or failure by those responsible for providing food, shelter, health care, or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Abandonment: the desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
  • Sexual: non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.

While one sign does not necessarily indicate abuse, some telltale signs that there might be a problem are:

  • Sudden changes in financial situation
  • Behavior such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by spouses or others
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness and unusual depression
  • Strained or tense relationships; frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person
  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss

Tragically, sometimes elders neglect their own care, which can lead to illness or injury. Self-neglect can include behaviors such as hoarding, failure to take medications, poor hygiene, inappropriate clothing, poor housekeeping, and dehydration.

Elder abuse can occur anywhere -- in the home, in nursing homes or other institutions, and in churches. It affects older adults of all socio-economic groups, religions, cultures, and races; however, women and frail older adults are more likely to be victimized.

Church leaders can play an important role in preventing abuse because they are often the first stop for help. In many cases, the pastor or leader of older adult ministries may be the only other person (except the abuser) in the victim's life. Becoming knowledgeable about elder abuse and knowing the warning signs may save a life.

  • Recognize the signs. Generally, look for any signs of mistreatment: physical and verbal abuse; neglect of personal hygiene, living conditions, or medical needs; and exploitation, such as someone taking advantage of an older person's finances and property. Some older adults are unable or afraid to talk about these kinds of situations, so it's important for church leaders to keep a watchful eye on their care.
  • Contact the proper authorities. Every state and most counties have an agency or an adult protection services bureau that is responsible for responding to elder abuse. To find out where to report elder abuse, call the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116. If the person is in immediate danger, call 911.
  • Take precautions to help prevent elder abuse.
    • Educate yourself and other church leaders about elder abuse.
    • Create a safe place for older adults by making your church a place where elderly victims can come for help.
    • Educate the congregation on the subject of violence against elders and fraud and abuse of elders. Give a sermon and prepare newsletter articles that mention abuse in vulnerable populations. Make it clear that this type of behavior is not condoned.
    • Establish a Friendly Visitor Program where members of your congregation regularly visit homebound and elderly members.
    • Start a Parish Nurse Ministry in which a knowledgeable and professional health care worker can help educate the congregation as well as be an observer of the needs of homebound members. Church leaders can help prevent abuse by teaching older adults and their families how to report fraud (especially telemarketing fraud), informing them about the types and signs of elder abuse; and encouraging those with family members in nursing homes to visit them often; if a family member is a caregiver, encourage and support the caregiver in getting respite.

To learn more about the issue of elder abuse, visit the national center on elder abuse website at www.ncea.aoa.gov.


The Reverend Dr. Richard H. Gentzler, Jr. is director of the Center on Aging & Older Adult Ministries for the Discipleship Ministries. He is author of numerous books and articles on mid-life and older adult ministries. His most recent book is titled Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century: An Inquiry Approach (Discipleship Resources, 2008).

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