By Fhamida Mohasin (she/her), Sakhi Anti-Violence Program Manager
Today, June 15th, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Since its inception, the purpose of WEAAD has been to provide an opportunity for communities around the world to promote a better understanding of the abuse and neglect of older persons by raising awareness of the cultural, social, economic, and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.
The New York State Office for the Aging reported that approximately 260,000 older adults are victims of elder abuse each year in New York State. For every reported case, 23.5 cases go unreported. Abuse towards the elderly population takes several forms: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; financial exploitation; and neglect (including self-neglect). However, abuse is not always easily recognized. Certainly, as a brown immigrant, a member of the South Asian community, a sociologist, and an advocate of the social justice movement, I cannot and should not overlook the abuses, challenges, and vulnerabilities of the South Asian elderly community in the United States.
As Sociologist Anthony Giddens (2016) wrote:
What do the terms senior citizen, elderly, or old age conjure up in your mind? For many Americans, old age is viewed as a time of senility, poverty, loneliness, and celibacy. Others view old age as a ‘golden’ time, when cash-flush retirees sell their homes, move to Florida, and live the good life, surrounded by their golf buddies and devoted grandchildren. (Wilken 2008 cited in Giddens 2016:344)
In North America, the ‘golden’ time and the experience of being elderly have changed dramatically over the past century. In today’s postmodern capitalist societies, the structure of the family has been deinstitutionalized, and more nuclear and alternative families have replaced the multigenerational joint and extended families. As Sweeter (1984) said, “the experiences and wisdom of elders were respected. They offered wisdom and support to their children and often helped raise their grandchildren”. Researchers believe industrialization and modernization have contributed greatly to lowering the power, influence, and prestige the elderly once held (Giddens et, al. 2016).
Looking at the demography reveals that the elderly population in the United States is foreign-born (Batalova 2012, Giddens). In California, New York, Hawaii, and the other States that receive large numbers of immigrants, as many as one-fifth of the elderly population were born outside of the United States (Shin and Kominski, 2010 cited in Giddens et, al. 2016). Most elderly immigrants to U.S. society do not speak English well or do not speak it at all. Integrating elderly immigrants into U.S society poses special challenges. Many require special education and training programs. Most lack retirement income, so they depend on their families or public assistance for support. Poverty, social isolation due to a lack of an intimate confidant and broader social network, and discrimination or prejudice against a person on the grounds of age, elder abuse, or health problems are prevalent among the elderly population. Looking at the elderly population of South Asian communities in the United States through my professional experience, I found that, unlike the ‘golden’ time of America, the South Asian elderly population experiences added and multi-layered challenges, abuses, and exploitations.
As a proud Sakhi advocate, I’m humbled to share my experience with Sakhi and my association with the elderly community. Sakhi is an organization that works specifically with South Asian survivors and youth in NYC and aims to create a safe place for survivors who have experienced abuse. We are committed to providing culturally and linguistically competent services to survivors of all genders, races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, castes, or other identity markers.
While working with Sakhi, I have witnessed the elderly population experience heart-breaking social isolation and physical and mental abuses in both the private/domestic and the public sphere. Within the family, the elderly population faces emotional abuse, neglect, and/or adverse treatment by their family members; exploitation and control; lessened or no mobility; financial abuse; poor living conditions; dependency on their adult children; and poor mental and physical health.
I will give specific examples here to explain the unique micro-level problems associated with domestic violence among elderly communities. For instance, isolation and lack of social support because of reduced mobility is a greater problem within the South Asian elderly community. Women also tend to be more isolated than men: unlike elderly women, elderly men can go outside, such as to grocery stores or their faith-based institutions. In many cases, elderly folks are forbidden to travel for a longer time or go back to their home countries as it would mean a loss of income for their caretakers, which in most cases are their children. Elderly individuals’ income is often withheld by family members and they have little or no access to their own money. Elder adults are also forced to stay in abusive intimate relationships as adult children consider it taboo to separate or divorce in South Asian culture. According to the American Psychological Association, not only ciswomen and cismen in the elderly community, but also LGBT older adults may also disproportionately be affected by poverty and physical and mental health conditions due to a lifetime of unique stressors associated with being a minority and may be more vulnerable to neglect and mistreatment in aging care facilities. Though the existing policies, resources, support, and services for the elderly population look lucrative, the reality for many South Asian elderly folks is that they find it difficult to explain the small but very significant details of why and how they are being maltreated, exploited, and abused. This issue is much more linguistically-, culturally-, and age-specific for this community. Due to the inability of service providers, policymakers, and frontline workers to acknowledge these details, the complete stories of elderly survivors remain unheard, underreported, or unaddressed.
Not only within the domestic sphere, the elderly may also face multilayered challenges and vulnerabilities from outside that can actually double their abusive experience. If we compare the resources and services for elderly communities in their countries of origin, the United States has better policies that have addressed the problems, abuses, and prejudices against the elderly community. In fact, discrimination on the basis of age is prohibited by the law. Due to advancements in medical treatment and elderly health care benefits and resources, many South Asian elderly individuals prefer to live in the United States. But this is just one side of the coin and does not reveal the whole story about their quality of life in the United States.
The problem is that access to and participation in resources and benefits are not easy for many reasons: racial discrimination, discriminatory policies, lack of linguistic and diverse cultural orientation, limited or no understanding of how systems operate in the United States, lack of affordable and appropriate housing; lack of job opportunities; financial fraud, etc. The most pertinent is that support and services are sometimes not culturally and linguistically competent. At the macro level, a lack of understanding of the unique challenges faced by the elderly leads policymakers and the administration to further expose the elderly to vulnerabilities and abuses. As a result, mainstream organizations that support elderly communities tend to be unable to recognize the problems of these folks.
In my view, the problem also lies in defining the elderly population. I have noticed that the elderly population is often lumped together, grouping everyone over 60 or 65. More specific breakdowns of age between 60 and 90 years are helpful because a 65-year-old’s life experience is much different than a 90-year-old’s. According to sociologists, the older adult population can be divided into three life-stage subgroups: the young-old (approximately 65–74), the middle-old (ages 75–84), and the old-old (over age 85) (William et al. 2014). The needs, abusive experiences, and challenges in these three age groups are different. We need to identify the specific experiences of each particular group and provide age-specific resources to elderly communities.
Additionally, it is found that older adults who are socially isolated are at increased risk for elder abuse, and COVID-19 has only increased this risk. Social isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the virtualization of existing resources, support, and services together make it more difficult and, in many cases, impossible for elderly communities to access the resources available to them. We at Sakhi are aware of such recurring and additional technological challenges within the South Asian elderly community.
To address the above abuses, additional challenges, and vulnerabilities, we at Sakhi have been working tirelessly to accumulate resources and maximize our services for the elderly community. As part of this initiative, under the Anti-Violence Program, we have opened up a room for elder abuse programs to meet this need for mental and emotional care. We have been offering a therapeutic, culturally competent, and language-specific support groups, one of which I am leading to solely focus on the elderly community. The purpose of the group is to offer a safe space for elderly survivors to share their experiences. In this safe space, elderly folks share their stories of gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and deprivation. Through this group, we envision that elderly people in our community can talk with other folks who are like themselves– people who truly understand what they’re going through– and can share practical insights that only come from firsthand experience. We aim to provide the elderly community with mental and emotional support so that they get to know what other elderly individuals are going through and feel more connected and understood. The support group aims to reduce anxiety and loneliness, improve self-esteem, and help the elderly community’s sense of overall well-being.
I would like to reiterate the importance of bringing a socio-cultural approach to aging by echoing William Little (2014):
Age is not merely a biological function of the number of years one has lived, or of the physiological changes the body goes through during the life course. It is also a product of the social norms and expectations that apply to each stage of life. Age represents the wealth of life experiences that shape whom we become.
On the occasion of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, I would like to honor the entire elderly population around the globe. I am committed to continuing my work toward ending elder abuse in the community. I also urge us all to create collective and comprehensive awareness around such cultural and linguistic age-specific issues at the local, state, and regional levels to draw attention to abuse issues and promote the spread of information to prevent abuse.
Fhamida Mohasin (she/her) joined Sakhi in April 2021 and is currently Sakhi’s Anti-Violence Program Manager. Prior to joining Sakhi, Fhamida taught at the University of Dhaka as an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies. She also taught in several other private universities in Bangladesh, namely Central Women’s University and Millennium University. Apart from teaching, Fhamida was actively involved with research and participated in the social justice movement and activism over the past decade. Fhamida conducted and collaborated on numerous research projects with several national and international human rights organizations such as Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Units (RMMRU), ILO, and Plan International. She worked on public policy formulation, which focused on domestic workers, domestic violence against Hindu women and Hindu Marriage Act, female migrants, and overseas employment policies in Bangladesh. She also studied sociology of environment and livelihoods, human rights of Dalits, violence against women, migration, with a gender focus. Her publications include decent work deficits in domestic work in Bangladesh; sexual violence against women and girls in the public place; female leadership style, and migration policies.
American Sociological Association, located here.
Giddens, Anthony, et al. Introduction to Sociology. New York: Norton, 2016.
Little, William, et al. “Introduction to Sociology-1st Canadian edition.” 2014.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2022 Campaign Tools, found here.