Putting Elder Abuse on the Public Agenda

by the FrameWorks Institute staff

Putting elder abuse on the public agenda

Advocates working on elder abuse face a communications problem.

The public discourse around violence and abuse has changed dramatically in recent decades, especially with respect to women and children. Older people and abuse, however, are largely left out of these conversations.

Why? Because most people are unfamiliar with what elder abuse is; are unclear about the extent to which it occurs; don’t know why it happens; and, as a result, aren’t able to consider and evaluate appropriate solutions.

To achieve social change, we need to help the public understand the issue; if the public understands the issue, they will be more likely to support for the systemic solutions we need to end it. To build political will, we need an evidenced-based framing strategy. The FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit communications think tank in Washington, DC, recently released two new resources that lay out this strategy. Strengthening the Support outlines an evidence-based plan to introduce and define elder abuse as a matter of collective concern and advance systemic solutions to it. Talking Elder Abuse demonstrates how to apply the research in communications practice.

The research, supported by the National Center on Elder Abuse at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California and others, reveals that the public does not think about the structural causes of elder abuse and instead relies on highly individualized ways of thinking about why elder abuse occurs. When thinking about the causes of elder abuse, people consider personality traits and the character of the person committing abuse or the person who is experiencing it. This viewpoint obscures the role that environmental and systemic factors play in causing elder abuse. As such, communicators and advocates must expand the viewpoint, or “widen the lens” on elder abuse beyond the people who are immediately involved. This approach helps people understand social contexts for which elder abuse is more or less likely to occur.

FrameWorks’ main recommendation is to adopt a narrative strategy that frames elder abuse as a social justice issue that explains how our current social structure allows it to happen and demonstrates how we can restructure our communities to prevent and address it. Studies show that a social justice narrative boosts the public’s sense of efficacy--the belief that we can take actions to prevent and address this problem--by substantial margins.

To frame this narrative, advocates should:

  •      •Appeal to the value of Justice. Framing communications around the principle that all people, regardless of age, deserve equal opportunity and fair treatment helps the public understand elder abuse as a social problem, promotes a sense of collective responsibility for it, and boosts support for policies to prevent and address it.

  •      •Compare society to a building. This metaphor helps people understand how a network of interconnected services and programs--the beams that support our social structures--help ensure that all people can participate fully in society and live free of harm and abuse.

  •      •Put individual stories in social context. Embedding individual stories in larger narratives shifts perceptions of elder abuse from an individual problem to a societal one. It also boosts the public’s sense that society can effectively prevent and address elder abuse with systemic solutions.

  • The success of social movements and social change requires shared ideals and a coordinated communications strategy. How or what the public understands about a given issue is largely determined by how it is talked about—in advocacy groups, in the media, in social circles, and even among family. The way we talk about issues matters. Framing it effectively is the first step in putting elder abuse on the public agenda.

This comprehensive set of framing research and resources was sponsored by Archstone Foundation, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and Grantmakers in Aging, and was conducted in partnership with the National Center on Elder Abuse at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. It builds on earlier research into cultural attitudes and beliefs about elder abuse and was produced alongside a related set of materials about reframing aging on it. To learn more about how to reframe elder abuse, please visit The FrameWorks Institute.