chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
July 16, 2023

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Abuse of Older Adults

Aiden Fel

The full issue, in which this article as well as any footnotes and endnotes appears, can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the abuse and neglect of older adults in the United States, exacerbating existing risk factors and introducing new challenges. Numerous studies have examined the prevalence of abuse on older persons during the pandemic and the role of social isolation, financial strain, caregiver burden, and ageism in shaping this issue. They also highlight interventions to alleviate loneliness and social isolation among older adults and the need for policy action to ensure equitable healthcare, employment rights, and education about ageism.

The abuse and neglect of older adults is a significant issue in the United States, with estimates suggesting that 500,000 incidents occur annually, with substantial consequences to health and well-being. Caregiver characteristics, including financial strain, substance use, social isolation, and caregiving burden, are known factors that increase the risk of abuse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these factors likely worsened due to the fear of infection, social distancing, job loss, and reduced services for older adults.

A 2021 study by Makaroun, et al. found that caregivers of older adults experienced increased stress, alcohol use, social isolation, and negative health impacts since the pandemic began. Caregivers, who may have additional job responsibilities, were more likely to face financial strain due to the pandemic. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation for older adults due to factors such as social isolation, increased caregiver burden, and financial instability.

Likewise, a 2022 study by Weissberger, et al. analyzed calls made to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) resource line and found that financial abuse was the most frequently reported type of abuse both before and during the pandemic, with family members being the most common alleged abusers in both timeframes. However, during the pandemic, there were higher frequencies of physical and emotional abuse calls.

Enhanced awareness of elder abuse risk factors among healthcare organizations and providers is crucial for identifying those most at risk and implementing protective measures. While anyone can be at risk for elder abuse and neglect, research indicates that specific populations, both pre- and post-pandemic, are more vulnerable: Victims are often non-white women with lower socioeconomic status who are struggling with cognitive impairments and are facing difficulties in daily activities. Perpetrators of abuse typically have risk factors such as substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal history. Research further suggests that caregivers who are struggling with substance abuse are more likely to commit physical and emotional abuse, while the caregiver burden is a factor more associated with neglect. 5 Further research, focusing on elder abuse characteristics in larger and more diverse samples of older adults and across different time periods of the pandemic, is needed to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on elder abuse patterns.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults experienced amplified risks of abuse and neglect, as well as novel risks involving cybercrime and remote technologies in health and social care. The pandemic led to social isolation and limited access to health services for older adults, exacerbating their vulnerability. Government policies and systemic neglect also contributed to increased mortality among older adults in care homes. The pandemic saw an increase in intentional acts of abuse, such as financial abuse and family violence.

The increased use of technology during the pandemic introduced new risks, such as cybercrime and challenges in risk assessment and safeguarding through remote care. To mitigate future risks, experts in the field suggest that strategies should address factors that impact not only the older adult, but the caregiver (sometimes referred to as the “trusted other”), and the broader context as well. For older adults, regular contact, communication, and access to resources and support are essential. For the "trusted other," alleviating caregiver burden and increasing penalties for elder abuse are important, and such support is likely to reduce overall risk for abuse.

According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, 27% of adults aged between 50 and 80 reported feeling isolated in 2018, a figure that rose to 56% at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Although the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine has reduced this number, it has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, with 34% of older adults still reporting feelings of social isolation in January 2023.  Interventions to alleviate loneliness and social isolation among older adults, issues greatly exacerbated during the pandemic, include one-to-one interventions, group activities, and community engagement approaches. Group interventions, particularly those with educational or training components, have been shown by studies to be more effective at addressing issues related to isolation. Some examples of additional supportive measures that were helpful include special shopping hours, home deliveries, and the development of community support services aimed at addressing social isolation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of addressing ageism and implementing protective measures. Healthcare providers, policymakers, and communities must work together to enhance awareness of elder abuse risk factors, improve accessibility to resources and support, and foster community connectedness to mitigate abuse risk during the ongoing pandemic. Further research is needed to inform the development of targeted interventions and comprehensive policy responses that prioritize the well-being, safety, and empowerment of older adults in a post-pandemic world.

Resources for Decreasing Loneliness and Social Isolation Among Older Adults:

  • Local agencies on aging provide socialization opportunities, and AARP's Connect2Affect tool helps find community programs addressing various needs.
  • Volunteering, such as with the Experience Corps that links older volunteers with children to improve reading levels, can also enhance social connections.
  • For older adults with disabilities, virtual classes and accessible transportation from senior centers can be of aid.
  • Homebound older adults can benefit from friendly call programs, which foster regular conversations between older adults and volunteers.
  • The AARP operates programs to assist those living with dementia and other cognitive disabilities.

    Aiden Fel

    Ossining High School

    The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.