Why is support of research important to the field of elder abuse? Would not scarce available resources be better spent on programs and services to address this problem?
In truth, support for both research and practice is essential to advance understanding of and response to elder abuse as a health and social problem, human rights issue, and sometimes a crime. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine thoughtfully undertaking practice without the contributions of research and vice versa.
Research and practice have a yin-yang relationship, with each critical to the other in realizing their interdependent purposes. More specifically, research is important to practice in offering direction, justifying change, and acknowledging accomplishment. Practice is important to research in suggesting priorities, providing data, and giving meaning to study results. Unfortunately, sometimes elder abuse research is seen as less compelling to fund and less critical to undertake than practice.
Research expands knowledge and knowledge strengthens practice. Scientific investigation of elder abuse has steadily grown in quantity and quality. It may remain behind comparable fields such as other aspects of family violence. Still, some studies have helped to transform practice. The following are but a few illustrations.
To policy makers and advocates, research provides the evidence required to take action. For example, clinical writings may have generated interest in elder abuse (1), but it was the first set of studies on the issue that justified Congressional hearings and initial legislation during the early 1980s (2). Similarly, it was difficult for advocates to argue for a greater share of government funding without knowing the scope of elder abuse. Two large-scale, nationally-representative prevalence surveys helped to change this (3). Finally, evaluation of elder abuse forensic centers has demonstrated their success in achieving desired outcomes, including increased referrals for perpetrator prosecution (4). It is little wonder then that provision for the replication of this multidisciplinary model was included federal Elder Justice Act in 2010 (5).
To practitioners, research can show how best to intervene in particular case situations. For instance, empirical study is producing valid and reliable screening tools (6), useful in improving elder abuse detection. It distinguished accidental from non-accidental bruising, an important probable marker of abuse occurrence (7). Research is identifying possible elder abuse risk factors (8), which if alleviated, may prevent future abuse occurrence. Lastly, it has revealed serious consequences of the problem, including greater mortality (9), indicating that priority response should be given to those victimized.
Elder abuse research has evolved since its origins roughly forty years ago. Still, forums and reports on the subject suggest it has much more to do (10). Elder abuse research deserves our support. It may not directly safeguard a victim or deter a perpetrator. However, its findings can identify and justify support for best practices which can.
-Georgia J. Anetzberger, PhD, ACSW
About the Author: Georgia J. Anetzberger, PhD, ACSW is a consultant in private practice and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Anetzberger is immediate Past-President of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and immediate Past-Editor of the Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect. She has been active in the field of elder abuse for over forty years as a practitioner, planner, administrator, researcher, and educator. Dr. Anetzberger has authored more than seventy scholarly publications on elder abuse or related interventions, led in the establishment of the oldest state and local elder abuse networks in the United States, and was the 2005 recipient of the Rosalie S. Wolf Memorial Elder Abuse Prevention Award—National Category.