Elder Justice and Elder Abuse: Two Sides of One Coin


This post is by Cara Kenien, LMSW, MPA, Social Media Manager, NYCEAC and originally appeared  on the NYCEAC blog

Have you ever heard the terms elder justice and elder abuse, had a good sense of what both meant but weren’t completely sure? I’ve had this experience and so decided to explore these terms.  Here’s what I discovered:

What is “Elder Justice”? 

Marie-Therese (MT) Connolly, Elder Rights Lawyer and MacArthur Fellow, coined the term elder justice.  In an article published by the American Society on Aging,  she defines “elder justice” as “a long unrecognized human and civil rights issue that raises fundamental questions about how we value life and view suffering in old age.”

MT explains the need for elder justice by sharply defining alarming trends:

  • Millions of people a year are victims of elder abuse and are often invisible, isolated and lacking an advocate
  • There are scant few government funds allocated for this issue
  • There is no national public awareness campaign about elder abuse, neglect and exploitation

In the policy arena, elder justice was defined during the creation of the Elder Justice Act.  In an executive summary of his bill in 2002, former United States Senator, John Breaux of Louisiana, explained that “Elder Justice means assuring that adequate public-private infrastructure and resources exist to prevent, detect, treat, understand, intervene in and, where appropriate, prosecute elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. From an individual perspective, elder justice is the right of every older American to be free of abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

Defining “Elder Abuse”

The NYC Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) defines elder abuse as a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate actions, which causes harm, risk of harm, or distress to an individual 60 years or older and occurs:

  • Within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust; or
  • When the targeted act is directed towards an elder person by virtue of age or disabilities.

Elder abuse can be intentional or unintentional, can take various forms, and includes but is not limited to physical, psychological, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, and financial exploitation.

While the terms elder abuse and elder justice share similarities, the two terms are defined differently. Elder abuse is what occurs and elder justice is what is sought. Perhaps the best explanation for how these terms share different sides of the same coin was expressed by Philip Marshall, the grandson of the reknowned philanthropist Brooke Astor, whose son, Anthony Marshall, and her attorney,  Francis X. Morrissey Jr., financially exploited her. Convicted of grand larceny charges in 2009, Philip courageously stood up to his father in court to protect his grandmother from further exploitation. Now outspoken about this issue, at the 2011 Financial Exploitation Summit in Buffalo, NY, sponsored by the National Adult Protective Services Association, Philip Marshall powerfully framed a decision to not respond to elder abuse as a moral one:

“If you are complacent about elder justice, you are complicit in elder abuse.”


About The NYC Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC)

The NYC Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) was launched in 2009 to improve professional, organizational and system responses to elder abuse, neglect and exploitation through an unprecedented level of collaboration and coordination. Through NYCEAC, many of NYC’s government and non-profit agencies provide a streamlined and rapid response to elder abuse cases. The depth and breadth of expertise and resources of the participating agencies reduces fragmentation of systems and minimizes gaps or overlap of services. In addition, NYCEAC provides professionals with the information and tools they need to effectively assist victims. Further, NYCEAC works to educate key decision-makers and elected officials.

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