One in six older adults worldwide is believed to be a victim of some form of elder abuse, according to a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) study. The research defined the mistreatment as falling into several categories: psychological, financial, neglect, physical and sexual.

According to a WHO fact sheet, abuse victims tracked over 13 years were twice as likely to die during that time compared to those who had not reported abuse. In addition, the WHO notes that elder abuse injuries in the U.S. result in medical costs of over $5 billion each year.

“There is growing interest in elder abuse, now that we know it is high prevalence,” says Kate Wilber, professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and co-director of the National Center on Elder Abuse, housed at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “People are finally noticing that this is a problem.”

It has much to do with Wilber and her collaborative work with researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, making a team of researchers and communicators known as the Secure Old Age Lab.  Along with the National Center on Elder Abuse, co-led by dean of the Keck School Laura Mosqueda, MD, the group is working to increase awareness and develop evidence-based interventions for this issue.


Uncovering Abuse

Only a small number of the estimated 5 million annual cases of elder abuse in the United States are reported.

Knowing that people with lower incomes, education and levels of English language ability are even less likely to come forward, the team set out to improve the identification of elder mistreatment in low-income, Latino immigrant communities, a population they knew to be understudied. With a grant from the National Institute on Aging, they recruited and trained promotores — local Spanish-speaking Latinos who are trained to provide basic health education in their communities — to interview a sample of these older residents. The results of this approach yielded higher reporting rates than had previous studies, with 40% of those questioned saying they had experienced some form of abuse or neglect in the previous year.

“Using promotores for elder abuse research had not been done before,” says Zach Gassoumis, PhD, an assistant professor of family medicine and geriatrics at the Keck School. “We believe we were successful in part because the participants could better relate to and confide in fellow community members versus outside interviewers.”


Building Relationships

USC has launched the nation’s second Elder Abuse Forensic Center, a collaboration among the USC Leonard Davis School, the Keck School, Adult Protective Services, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, and a number of additional county agencies. The Los Angeles County Elder Abuse Forensic Center brings together people with different types of expertise to discuss complicated cases and develop a plan of action.

Wilber and her Keck School collaborator Diana Homeier, MD, designed a pilot program to introduce a service advocate — someone who can represent victims’ needs and desires — to the Forensic Center team.


Looking Ahead

New and ongoing projects are looking at the big picture of elder abuse across the nation and also aiming to provide assistance at the individual level. Inevitably, another headline will serve as a reminder that elder abuse is an ongoing problem. But this interdisciplinary approach can help to raise awareness of the issue, reduce its occurrence and improve how it is addressed.

— Orli Belman, MS, chief communications officer at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

 This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Vitality magazine with the headline “Shining a Light.” It has been edited for length and formatting. Visit to read the full article under the title, “Shining a Light on Elder Abuse.”