Elder Abuse versus Dependent Adult Abuse: What’s the Difference?

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There are over 526,000 Iowans over the age of 65 (State Data Center of Iowa, 2019). Based on national data that estimates 10 percent of older adults over age 60 are victims of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation (Beach et al., 2010), then there could be over 52,000 Iowans who experience elder abuse annually. For perspective, more Iowans are victims of elder abuse than the populations of Urbandale or Cedar Falls. Twice as many as the population of Burlington or Ottumwa.

A recent report on Iowa Public Radio highlighted the challenges of elder abuse in Iowa. The report stated “Iowa’s Department of Human Services received nearly 5,300 abuse complaints for adults over 60.” The key distinction is that many of these complaints are rejected from investigation because the older adult was not victimized by a caregiver. This distinction in definitions is critical when discussing elder abuse because cases of dependent adult abuse for Iowans over 60 are elder abuse, not all elder abuse is dependent adult abuse. This is a matter of definitions that prevent Iowans who are victims of elder abuse, but not dependent adult abuse, from understanding what supports, services, and legal relief is available to them once they have been victimized.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), knowledge of elder abuse lags behind child abuse and domestic violence by as much as 20 years. This may be, in part, due to the substantial difficulty in elder abuse definitions. The NCEA also states that conducting research on elder abuse is challenged because of variations in how elder abuse is operationalized. It is heartening to know that, in Iowa, there are activities that can be legally identified as elder abuse (See Iowa Code Chapter 235F). These definitions are necessary in distinguishing between elder abuse and dependent adult abuse and what relief a victim of abuse can expect. While the current law provides for protections when elder abuse occurs, it may not go far enough in criminalizing the act of elder abuse. Such discussions are likely necessary to ensure fulsome protections for Iowa’s older adults who have been victims of abuse.

Click image to learn about red flags for elder abuse

Obviously the question becomes how can we meet the demand of so many potential elder abuse cases? This too will require further systemic support and strengthening of programs that are already in place to provide supports and services in preventing abuse as well as responding to abuse when it occurs. Iowa’s Area Agencies on Aging provide local services through the Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness program. Strengthening local, multi-disciplinary teams where they exist, and expanding where they do not, would be another strong step forward. Such teams have been described as cornerstones to intervention (Galdamez et al., 2018). Nationally, elder abuse multi-disciplinary teams and networks focus on financial exploitation (90.8%), physical abuse (83.5%) and neglect by others (81.6%) (Galdamez). Barriers to the success of such teams include funding, time commitment required, and multi-agency engagement in addressing elder abuse issues (Galdamez). In Iowa, efforts have been underway to promote local coordination as well as training and education provided through federal funding at the Iowa Attorney General’s office.

As we draw closer to the start of Iowa’s legislative session, Iowa’s aging network and the Iowa Association of Area Agencies on Aging will continue to provide education and information about the important definition distinction between elder abuse and dependent adult abuse in Iowa and the services needed to meet the needs of older Iowans.

Learn more about national legislation: Elder Justice Act of 2010


Beach, S.R., Schulz, R., Castle, N.G., & Rosen, J. (2010). Financial exploitation and psychological mistreatment among older adults: Differences between African Americans and Non-African Americans in a population-based survey. Gerontologist, 50(6), p. 744-757.

Galdamez, G., Avent, E., Rowan, J., Wilber, K.H., Mosqueda, M.D., Olsen, B., & Gassoumis, Z.D. (2018). Elder abuse multidisciplinary teams and networks: Understanding national intervention approaches. Innovation in Aging, 2 (Suppl. 1). 763. Accessed December 9, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6228882/

National Center on Elder Abuse (2019). Statistics and Data. Accessed December 9, 2019 at https://ncea.acl.gov/About-Us/What-We-Do/Research/Statistics-and-Data.aspx#challenges

State Data Center of Iowa (2019). Older Iowan: 2019. May 2019. Accessed December 9, 2019 at https://www.iowadatacenter.org/Publications/older2019.pdf

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