A Feminist Perspective on Gender and Elder Abuse: A Review of the Literature
Lisa Nerenberg MSW, MPH
National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
December 10, 2002
This literature review describes a body of work that applies a “gender-based analysis” to elder
abuse. Associated with feminism, this approach assumes that gender determines women’s role
and status in society and shapes their social relationships. It further assumes that it is
impossible to apply theory, practice or policy to social issues without taking gender into
account. Several of the authors whose work is highlighted contend that elder abuse has
traditionally been viewed as “gender neutral,” leading to inadequate responses that focus
exclusively on personal or interpersonal problems. Some call for new analyses that consider
the duel forces of ageism and sexism in elder abuse.
For over two decades, researchers, policymakers and service providers have applied various models
and conceptual frameworks to elder abuse. Most explanations of abuse have focused on the attributes
of abusers and victims, or on the relationship between the two. Factors associated with perpetrators
that have been looked at include stress, psychosis, burnout, personality disorders or addictions to
alcohol, drugs or gambling; factors associated with victims include physical disability, cognitive
impairment and dependency. In recent years, a growing number of theorists and researchers have
pointed out that these traditional explanations are inadequate because they fail to acknowledge the
significance of gender. In response, they have called for a gender-based analysis.
The “Gender Lens”
Feminist ideology holds that gender determines women’s role and status in society and shapes their
social relationships; consequently, it is impossible to apply theory, practice or policy to social issues
without taking gender into consideration (Neysmith, 1995; Whittaker, 1995). Feminist theorists Kate
Millet (1971) and Susan Brownmiller (1975) were among the first to suggest that women were
vulnerable to violence because of their unequal social, economic and political status in society. These
gender-based inequalities further limit the resources that women have available to them to stop the
violence (for many women, leaving abusive partners results in poverty). The assertion that violence
stems from women’s subordinate status in society has been widely accepted; an epidemiological report
from the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University (1999) acknowledged the growing
consensus that abuse of women and girls is best understood within a gender framework.
Feminist theory further holds that when gender-based inequalities and discrimination are the
underlying causes of violence, traditional approaches to prevention such as arbitration, mediation,
therapy or counseling are ineffective. Instead, the underlying causes of gender-based violence must be
addressed through such means as legislation to place more resources at the disposal of women, ensure
equal rights and equal access to resources, end discrimination and criminalize abuse. “Feminist
practice” at the individual level includes consciousness-raising about violence and its causes, and
providing opportunities and support for women to disclose abuse, assert their rights, learn skills to live
violence-free, and acquire resources to gain control over their lives (Vinton, 1999).
Gender and Elder Abuse
Several explanations are offered for why there have been no systematic attempts to develop a feminist
analysis of elder abuse to date. Terri Whittaker (1995) suggests that elder abuse has been “screened out
of the (gender) debate on the grounds that women have been found to abuse their elders too.”
Neysmith (1995) concurs, adding that female-perpetrated elder abuse “seems to contradict an
understanding of violence, which sees it stemming from gender-based power inequities” (Neysmith,
The authors who have looked to the research to achieve a better understanding of gender
differences in elder abuse point out that the findings are inconclusive, ambiguous, misleading and, in
some cases, contradictory (Crichton et al, 1999). They attribute these problems to widespread
inconsistencies in defining abuse and methodological shortcomings, which include the fact that most
studies have failed to employ representative samples or taken victims’ subjective experiences into
account. Others cite researchers’ failure to control for such intervening or mediating factors as the
preponderate number of older women, the severity of the abuse, or living arrangement (Neysmith,
1995; Whittaker, 1995, Penhale, 1999; Crichton et al, 1999, Vinton, 1999).
While acknowledging the shortcomings of the research, the authors have drawn conclusions
about victims and abusers. Crichton et al (1999) conclude that men are more likely to perpetrate abuse
and women are more likely to be victims, but caution that larger, random sample surveys are needed.
Neysmith (1995) points out that the extent and impact of force used by women is much less than that
inflicted by men. Griffin and Aitken (1996) call for new, broader analyses to account for abuse by
female perpetrators; in particular they suggest the need for further research into the gendered nature of
abuse in institutional settings, where both perpetrators and victims are likely to be female (and,
therefore, socially and economical disempowered). Whittaker (1995) suggests that this debate is
counterproductive, concluding that “hairsplitting discussions about what is abuse and how common it
is obscures the evidence that a significant number of women are exposed to unacceptable forms of
Failure to develop a gender-based analysis of elder abuse is also attributed to ageist attitudes
within the women’s movement (Hightower, 2002) and the failure of feminists to take an interest in
older women (Whittaker, 1995). Aitken and Griffin (1996) agree, adding that, “On the whole,
feminism has distanced itself from older women.”
Regardless of the reasons why feminists and others have failed to consider the role of gender-
based inequalities in elder abuse, their failure to do so has led to inadequate responses, according to
some. Whitaker (1996) sums it up best by concluding that traditional responses to elder abuse
“individualize or privatize what are essentially political problems.” She further calls on feminists to
“develop analyses of elder abuse which acknowledge the social and cultural construction of abuse and
locate causation outside of the personality traits and characteristics of either abuser or abused.”
An International Perspective
The socio-political and economic factors that contribute to elder abuse are increasingly being discussed
in international forums. This trend may reflect both the growing interest by global development
organizations in gender issues, as well as the framing of elder abuse as a human rights concern. The
1994 International Conference on Population and Development, for example, challenged all
population, health and development organizations to take gender into account in all their activities. In a
report prepared for the World Assembly on Aging, the U.N. Secretary General acknowledged the role
of both sexism and ageism as contributing factors in elder abuse (United Nations, 2002). The report
cites “patrilineal inheritance laws and land rights that affect the political economy of relationships and
the distribution of power” among the factors that contribute to the vulnerability of older persons in
some settings. It further casts the mistreatment of older persons within the broader landscape of
“poverty, structural inequalities and human rights violations,” which disproportionately affect women
An electronic discussion forum, “Gender Aspects of Violence and Abuse of Older Persons,”
conducted in April 2002 by INSTRAW, the United Nations International Research and Training
Institute for the Advancement of Women, also explored the role of gender in elder abuse (AgeingNet,
2002). Participants from around the world described the formidable cultural and institutional barriers to
stopping abuse against elderly women that exist in some countries. As one participant stated,
“Violence is an everyday experience in women’s lives in Pakistani society… The real issue is how do
we create respect for women in Pakistani society which still continues to believe that a women is just a
slipper on the feet of a man” (AgeingNet, 2002). Participants observed that blatant abuses against
women and girls such as female foeticide (the aborting of female fetuses) and karo kari ("honor
killings”) are still practiced in some areas despite sustained efforts to eradicate them. These
experiences point to the futility of addressing elder abuse while ignoring the broader context of
institutionalized sexism and ageism in which it occurs.
The Need for a Broader Analysis
While the authors featured in this review contend that gender must be taken into account to understand
and respond to abuse, most agree that a gender-based analysis alone is insufficient to explain the
problem. Rather, they suggest that elder abuse represents a convergence of gender and age-related
factors; discrimination and disadvantage associated with both gender and age combine to compromise
older women’s ability to achieve or maintain self-sufficiency and render them more likely to be poor
and/or dependent. Negative perceptions and damaging stereotypes of old women further contribute to
isolation, marginalization and brutality.
Gender-based analysis has been evolving over the past thirty years. It has been accompanied by
growing recognition that gender-based inequality is not the only form of inequality operating in
women’s lives. For example, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota, which
developed the model used by many domestic violence programs nationwide, now concedes that “all
forms of institutionalized oppression, including racism, classism, heterosexism, and ageism increase
the vulnerability of women to both individual acts of violence and to institutionalized acts of violence”
(http://www.duluth-model.org). More research, debate and analysis are clearly needed to achieve a
clearer understanding of how the economic, social and political status of women and the elderly, as
well as the cumulative effects of ageism and sexism, contribute to elder abuse.
AgeingNet. (2002). Summary of INSTRAW electronic discussion forum on gender aspects of violence
and abuse of older persons. Retrieved July 16, 2002 from the WWW: http://www.un-
Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women and rape. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Aitkin, L. & Griffin, G. (1996). Gender issues in elder abuse. London: Sage.
Crichton, S.J., Bond, J.B., Harvey, C.D. & Ristock, J. (1999). Elder abuse: Feminist and ageist
perspectives. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect. 10 (3/4), 115-130.
Harbison, J. (1999). The changing career of “elder abuse and neglect” as a social problem in Canada:
Learning from feminist frameworks?” Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 11(4), 59-80.
Hightower, J. (2002). Violence and Abuse in the Lives of Older Women: Is it Elder Abuse or Violence
Against Women? Does It Make Any Difference? Gender Aspects of Violence and Abuse of
Older Persons. Background Paper for INSTRAW Electronic Discussion Forum 15-26 April
Millet, K. (1971). Sexual politics. New York: Avon
Neysmith, S. (1995). Power in relationships of trust: A feminist analysis of elder abuse. In M. J.
MacLean (Ed.) Abuse and neglect of older Canadians: Strategies for change. Toronto:
Thompson Educational Publishers, Inc.
Penhale, B. (1999). Bruises on the soul: Older women, domestic violence, and elder abuse. Journal of
Elder Abuse & Neglect. 11(1), 1-22.
School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. (1999). Ending violence against women.
Population Reports, L(11).
Vinton, L. (1999). Working with abused older women from a feminist perspective. Journal of Women
& Aging 11(2/3), 85-100.
Whittaker, T. (1995). Violence, gender and elder abuse: Towards a feminist analysis and practice.
Journal of Gender Studies, 4(1), 35-45.
United Nations. (2002). Abuse of older persons: Recognizing and responding to abuse of older persons
in a global context. Report of the Secretary-General. Retrieved July 16, 2002 from the WWW: