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Elder Abuse and
Substance Abuse

Critical Issues
  Other topics:  

Role of Culture in
Elder Abuse

  Mental capacity, consent, and
undue influence

Autonomy and

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Critical Issues in
Elder Abuse

Substance abuse has been identified as the most frequently cited risk factor associated with elder abuse and neglect. It may be the victim and/or the perpetrator who has the substance abuse problem. Substance abuse is believed to be a factor in all types of elder abuse, including physical mistreatment, emotional abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect. It is also a significant factor in self-neglect.

Researchers and practitioners have observed the following patterns with respect to perpetrators of elder abuse who abuse drugs or alcohol:

  • Persons with alcohol or substance abuse problems may view older family members, acquaintances, or strangers as easy targets for financial exploitation. The perpetrator may be seeking money to support a drug habit or because they are unable to hold a job and have no source of income.
  • Perpetrators may move into an older person's home and use it as a base of operation for drug use or trafficking.
  • The research on domestic violence shows that abusive partners are more likely to be violent while they're under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The relationship between domestic violence and substance abuse, however, is not fully understood. Although it has been assumed that alcohol and drugs reduce users' inhibitions, it has also been observed that perpetrators of domestic violence use drugs and alcohol to rationalize their behavior.
  • Caregivers who are having difficulty coping with the demands of providing care may use drugs as a misguided coping mechanism.

They have observed the following patterns with respect to victims who abuse drugs or alcohol:

  • Alcoholic or substance abusing older persons are at risk for several reasons.They may have substance abuse related impairments, such as cognitive loss, that reduces their ability to resist or detect coercion or fraud. Physical disabilities associated with substance abuse increase risk by rendering the older person dependant on others for assistance or care, and giving caregivers physical access to the older person and their home. Caregivers are also likely to have access to an older person's financial resources and to wield significant influence.
  • Seniors may be encouraged to take drugs or drink excessively, or even forced to do so. A perpetrator's motive may be to make the older person easier to exploit financially or, in the case of illegal drug use, less likely to report. Abusive caregivers may encourage older people to drink excessively or use drugs to make them more compliant or easier to care for.
  • Some victims use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to relieve their anxiety and fear.
  • Seniors who have longstanding alcohol or substance abuse problems are likely to have poor relationships with their families or to be estranged entirely. If the older person needs care, their family members may be unwilling to help or may harbor resentments that impede their ability to provide good care.
  • Older persons who self-neglect are likely to have substance abuse or alcohol problems.

Resources for learning more about the relationship between substance abuse and elder abuse:

Elder Abuse & Substance Abuse: Making the Connection. An interview with Charmaine Spencer and Jeff Smith. in nexus, a Publication for NCPEA Affiliates. April 2000. Click here to view.

Bradshaw, D., & Spencer, C. (1999). The role of alcohol in elder abuse cases. In J. Pritchard (Ed.). Elder abuse work: Best practices in Britain and Canada. London: Jessica Kingsley Press.

Last Updated March 2003

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