Law, Psychiatry Professors Receive Grant to Study Elder Abuse

November 14, 2006

U.Va. law professor Thomas Hafemeister and psychiatry professor Shelly Jackson have received a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Institute of Justice to investigate financial abuse and other forms of mistreatment of the elderly in Virginia. An estimated 1 to 2 million Americans age 65 or older-about 4 to 6 percent of the nation's elderly-are injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone they depend upon for care or protection each year.

"Although there's been a significant surge of interest in this area, there is little existing empirical evidence concerning elder abuse in general and financial abuse in particular," said Hafemeister, who is also director of legal studies at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. "The research that's out there has indicated that most elder abuse tends to occur in a domestic setting. It involves someone the person knows very well. This will be the focus of our research."

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Prof. Thomas Hafemeister


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Prof. Shelly Jackson

Experts are increasingly concerned about financial abuse of the elderly. "The Baby Boomers are just about to hit elder status and, unlike prior generations, retiring elders frequently now have a lot of assets of their own. Unfortunately, where there's money, there's going to be people who want to take advantage of it," he said. Studies show that 70 percent of all funds deposited in financial institutions in the United States are controlled by people age 65 or older and 30 percent of elder abuse cases involve financial exploitation.

The grant will fund a two-year study that, with the assistance of state social services agencies such as Adult Protective Services, will contact recent victims of abuse who are willing to be interviewed. Interviewers will ask the elder person, the caseworker who responded to a report of abuse, and current caregivers about what caused the reported problem, the nature of the problem, the state's response, and how effective that response was perceived to be. Investigators will track and compare different forms of elder abuse, in part to compare and contrast financial exploitation to other forms of abuse.

"We'll be able to look at the different perspectives different people have on these cases and we'll be able to look at it across different types of abuse," said Jackson, who directs grants and program development at the Institute.

In the early 1990s, many states adopted or modified existing child abuse reporting protocols to handle elder abuse cases, which were beginning to receive increased attention. Similarly, the psychology of the elderly has become its own branch of study as interest in the field has grown.

"We began to realize there was also a lot of financial abuse going on," Hafemeister said. "To really understand it, we need to look at it in the context of other forms of elder abuse. We hope to better understand what the appropriate model is to address the problem."

According to Hafemeister, the psychological shift an elderly person experiences when transitioning from being an independent person to being in a more vulnerable stage of life can factor into various forms of elder abuse.

"Isolation is one of the largest risk factors across all forms of abuse," said Jackson, who teaches the course "Family Violence Across the Lifespan" at the University.

The federal government is interested in the issue in part because of its effects on Medicaid. If the elderly qualify for Medicaid, the government will pay for nursing home or other expensive health care. Transferring money to family members-whether the elder person is willing or unwilling-can be a crime. "The government wants to reserve its funding for those who really are very needy," Hafemeister said.

He and Jackson have already begun pilot testing their study, but they hope to recruit a mix of students from the Law School, as well as graduate students in psychology and counseling, to help interview participants. "I think it's going to be a fascinating experience for the students conducting these interviews," Hafemeister said. "If you have any interest in this field or just human nature in general, it's a great opportunity to learn more about it."


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