Exploring the Links Between Elderly and Crime

Photo illustrating an elderly victim of crime.
The Crime Victims' Institute published a study on Elder Abuse in 2010, authored by Dr. Victoria Titterington.

While the elderly represent the largest growing segment of the population, little is known about the nature and scope of crime impacting this generation.

Dr. Victoria Titterington is trying to change that with a series of studies that examine the elderly and crime. She recently gave an overview of her research to graduate students and faculty at a Brown Bag lunch in the Criminal Justice Center.

The elderly, defined as persons over the age of 65, currently represent about 12 percent of the population in Texas. But with the baby boomer generation aging, that number is expected to double by 2030. While the elderly are only a minority of crime victims, they are at higher risk for property crimes, self-neglect and abuse, Dr. Titterington found in a 2010 report for the Crime Victims’ Institute called “Elder Abuse.”

“They are much more likely to be abused by people they know and more specifically by family members,” Dr. Titterington said. “These are not just spouses; many of the abusers are adult children. The popular myth is that old people get abused by caregivers because they (the elderly) are needy and are draining these people’s resources. What we know from research about caregivers is that they are often the ones that are dependent. For example, we may be talking about middle-aged men who are drug-dependent or unemployed, moving back in with Mom and depending on Mom to take care of them. Some pretty bad stuff ends up happening.”

Dr. Titterington shared her research with graduate students and faculty at a recent Brown Bag lunch.
Dr. Titterington shared her research with graduate students and faculty at a recent Brown Bag lunch.
Reports of elder abuse in domestic settings increased by 150 percent from 1986 to 1996, and the University of Chicago’s National Social Life, Health & Aging Project estimated that 13 percent of older Americans suffer some form of abuse. Titterington said those figures may be grossly underestimated. The 2004 Survey of State Protective Services said elderly abuse victims range from 100,000 to one million annually. Further, female seniors are at greater risk for abuse than older men.

Financial swindles are one of the fastest growing forms of abuse, according to the National Center for Elderly Abuse in a 2009 study. The elderly also suffer more self-neglect, and these particular victims are generally depressed, confused or extremely frail.

In one study, Drs. Titterington and Napoleon Reyes, then a SHSU Ph.D. student, studied homicide and the elderly in three major cities, including Houston, Chicago and Miami, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. This research indicates that compared to younger victims, older homicide victims are significantly more likely to be female, to be killed by family members, and to be killed in the course of a robbery or other felony. The study was published in 2010 in the Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice.

Chalk outline of murder victim behind crime tape.Dr. Titterington and Ph.D. Student Jeanne Subjack studies homicide ratio among male and female elderly.Dr. Titterington also discussed a research project, co-authored with Jeanne Subjack, a current Ph.D. student. This involves the overall and spousal sex ratios of homicide offending. In a study of Texas’ six largest cities, the results showed that these sex ratios are low for homicide in general. For example, for the period of 1976-2007, for every 100 male offenders in El Paso, there were only 10 female homicide offenders. However, women’s representation as homicide offenders is significantly larger in the case of spousal homicides. At the extreme, for this 30-year period, there were 96 female spousal homicide offenders for every 100 males who were killing spouses/intimate partners. Though the spousal sex ratios of killing were large for both younger and older couples, an encouraging note about this particular finding is that the levels of spousal homicide offending for males and females has seen a significant reduction in these cities, as well as nationally. The study is expected to be published this year in a special issue of Homicide Studies.

Historically, the criminal justice system was not a major player in elder abuse, but more and more police are dealing with these issues on the street. In fact, federal legislation, The Elder Justice Act, was passed in 2010, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It is designed to address many of the weaknesses in current federal and state programs dealing with the abuse, neglect and exploitation of older people. This is arguably the most important piece of legislation related to U.S. senior citizens since passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965 and the addition of Medicare to the Social Security Act in that same year.

“Adult protective services can only do so much, so unless the criminal justice system is involved, we will just have more problems,” said Dr. Titterington. “That’s why I want to introduce undergraduate students to the problem. Many of them are going to be police officers and prosecutors. They will invariably encounter suspected elder abuse, and they have to know what to do.”



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