Ageism: Abuse, Neglect, and Emergency Services

Three of a nine-part series of articles on ageism.

Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of a society is how that society treats those who are in the dawn of life – the children; those who are in the twilight of life – the elderly; and those who are in the shadow of life – the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

Creating a just society includes treating older people as equal members and making sure we are all connected to our communities as we age so that we can prevent and address elder abuse.

The FrameWorks Institute compares society to a “building that needs support beams that are interconnected, securely joined, and frequently maintained to remain strong. To create a just society, we need beams like services and programs that integrate older people into our communities.”

If we don’t have these services and programs in place or if they are weak, we will likely experience social isolation, which increases the likelihood of abuse and neglect.

One example of this is the story of Mary. Her adult son moved back home after a divorce and had an alcohol and drug addiction problem. Because of this, he was unable to find work and became financially dependent upon Mary. Constantly borrowing from her to feed his addictions, he reduced the vital resources that she needed for her own care and support in her retirement.

Lack of emergency preparedness plans and services has also caused older community members to experience abuse and neglect. The following case happened during the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001. According to the report Ageism in America by Dr. Robert Butler, “Older people were trapped for up to a week with no electricity, running water, telecommunications, information about what was happening and what they should do to prepare for rescue. Essential services such as Meals on Wheels, home health care, and prescription refills were not available to them.”

When we are socially isolated, the risk of elder abuse and neglect increases because no one is around to detect it or assist if it occurs. Social supports, such as good public transportation, can help by allowing us to get to places like community/senior centers and doctor’s offices. When we have these resources, we’re able to connect with the community and get the services we need.

When these crucial support services are not in place, it is less likely that someone will notice if we are being abused or neglected. When we are not connected to the community, it is likely that we will be overlooked by emergency services as well. A community should get to know who its at-risk, isolated people are through social services, police and other agencies that can identify and include them for community-wide emergencies.

If we are socially isolated, despite the fact that we live in the community, we are at risk of and disproportionately impacted by everyday emergencies such as extreme heat, extreme cold, and fires. If you have a neighbor who is an older adult, it could be lifesaving to check on them during temperature extremes.

“Adults ages 85 and older saw the largest decrease in fire death rate trends from 2007 to 2016, with a decline of 35 percent,” according to the U.S. Fire Administration. “Unfortunately, this group had the highest relative risk of dying in a fire. In 2016, adults ages 85 and over were 3.4 times more likely to die in a fire than the total population.”

As the saying goes, “Prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true when it comes to abuse and neglect. There are many resources that can help us understand and prevent abuse and neglect. Locally and regionally, the organization Someplace Safe has a 24/7 crisis hotline and provides safe shelter if needed. Their phone number is 1-800-974-3359, and their advocates are trained to help people escape abuse.

Law enforcement is more aware and better trained today than ever before to spot and intervene in elder abuse. Most communities have elder abuse report hotlines with an 800 number. In Otter Tail County, the phone number is 1-844-880-1574. Of course, if it’s an emergency, call 911.

We can strengthen our social structure by supporting our senior/community centers, improving public transportation and integrating community professionals so that older adults can participate in community life. Strengthening our social structure will help us reduce social isolation to overcome elder abuse and neglect so that we can live up to our national promise of justice for all.

See 2019 Ageism Series Bibliography for sources quoted.


  1. Bette Dewing

     Hubert Humphrey also said the impersonal hand of government can never replace the caring hand of a neighbor ut alas i find my longtime  neighbors  rather indifferent    as well as faith group  younger members etctera 


    • So true, Bette. Big government is not the solution to ageism. As far as churches go, I see that segregation in my church as well with 50+ study groups, youth groups, etc. Integration is the key to pushing back against ageism. Some neighborhoods are trying to overcome the separation that exists by having block parties, etc. We need more of that kind of thing and more integration between the generations.


  2. If integration is the key to pushing back against ageism then WHY do we still have ageist thoughts eg. the article mentions we need better transportation systems to get seniors to senior centers and doctor’s offices. Only a small percentage of the older population actually go to senior centers OR are unhealthy enough to repeatedly go to doctor’s offices. We need a new paradigm for seniors many of them who just want more real opportunities to be active, creative, productive and prosperous in our society. Yes, seniors 85+ do need individual help however; younger seniors should not be painted with the same brush needing the same kind of social programs. A large percentage of seniors 50+ today are healthy, well educated, have skills, knowledge, wisdom, work experience, contacts and resources. They are not helpless and are willing to collaborate with the younger demographic. Let’s expand the segregated senior centers to have all ages congregate and collaborate in lifelong learning centers, local public libraries, community centers and possible ‘common rooms’ where integration would basically be seamless for the whole population regardless of age.


    • I love your vision, Joe. Unfortunately, as a society, we have not come that far yet. According to the National Institute of Senior Centers, there are 11,000 senior centers nationwide serving millions of seniors in one way or another. The number one reason people come to the senior center where I work is to work out on state-of-the-art exercise equipment with their peers. We have become our area’s “healthy aging center.” Our members say they feel less intimidated working out with their peers than in a regular gym. Many of them simply would not go to an integrated gym. I’m not saying this is doing one bit of good to fight ageism – it’s not. But it is filling a demand and helping people stay healthier. Our city is working towards a more integrated community, but I know the seniors will not want to give up their segregated place. This is much like the segregated student unions on college campuses. Though people don’t like racism, they all want their own student unions where they can be with their peers. This does nothing to integrate the students and push back on racism, yet they demand a place of their own. Go figure….people actually demanding to be segregated. But, it’s a thing.

      There is an organization named “Bridges Together” that feels we need to reach children early in order to stop ageism from taking root. I couldn’t agree more! They have a lot of well-developed programs to help senior centers, schools, families, etc. become more integrated. Check out their website at I think you’ll find it helpful to your vision of an integrated society. Best. Kathy


  3. Hi Kathy! Thanks for your comments and suggesting to check-out Bridges Together. I signed up to get some info on what they are doing in the area of integration. Their model seems to be one that has existed for centuries i.e. families working together to solve problems, etc. It should be interesting to see if and how an integrated entity like Bridges Together can help the segregated senior centers. I still think that integrated common rooms where all ages have an opportunity to come in and discuss various topics of concern in their own communities is a better idea.

    What is the definition of a ‘healthy aging center’ besides having state-of-the-art exercise equipment? If we consider your Refined by Age we can come to the conclusion that most if not all senior centers are limited in offering some of your defined 7 dimensions of wellness. The most important dimensions like intellectual, emotional, and work/small business dimensions are missing from the programs being offered to seniors. My terms of reference is Canada where I am based, but I believe senior centers are similar throughout North America and elsewhere with only the different programs offered being different.

    Also, it is my understanding that the average age of seniors attending senior centers is over 75 years of age and that 75 percent are women. if this is the case then it’s only a mater of time that younger seniors (Boomers) will be the driving force to change the common meeting place from a senior center to an integrated center. eg. community recreation & discussion centers, lifelong learning centers, and newly renovated local public libraries. If this trend happens in the near future seniors will be their own active agents to alleviate ageism. Seniors can’t just sit back and expect others will solve the current ageism and age discrimination problems. Seniors need to share the responsibility to help solve ageism and this will definitely be a significant move away from segregation in any form.

    Thanks Kathy for this important discussion!


    • Hey there Joe,
      We have a saying at the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) in Washington, DC – “If you’ve seen one senior center, you’ve seen one senior center.” I’m sorry to hear that Canada doesn’t have more models of senior centers that offer the array of programs that fulfill the seven dimensions of wellness. Not every senior center here in the U.S. will nor strives to meet every one of the dimensions, but I think it is a noble goal as long as senior centers exist.

      I must state that the seven dimensions of wellness do not need a building or program to enrich lives. What they need is understanding and awareness of what they are so that people can exercise and strengthen them. For example, I went through a period of time when my physical dimension would not allow me to do much. I wasted no time wallowing in angst and depression over the downtime of my physical dimension because I knew there were other dimensions I could strengthen. During that time I accomplished a goal I wanted to meet in my life – I read the Holy Bible in its entirety. Being a Christian, that means the world to me and I wouldn’t change the temporary loss of my physical dimension if I could.

      I had the opportunity to serve on the “New Models of Senior Centers” Task Force with NISC from 2006-2009. I was amazed at the array of models we discovered through our research and the ways in which they were addressing all dimensions of wellness; including intellectual, emotional and vocational. The findings are too long to go into here, but the report is available through the National Council on Aging/National Institute of Senior Centers.

      It has been my experience, sadly, that some seniors are in denial of ageism. They feel the over-the-hill jokes and other related ageist marketing items that portray older adults in a negative light are humorous and truthful. I would love to see seniors stand up to ageism. In my part of America, they are only beginning to see ageism for what it is. Yes, seniors must share in the responsibility for calling out ageism in all its forms, and they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with as the boomers turn 65 by 10,000 every day. Until and unless they wake up to ageism, those of us who are “woke” must continue to gently shake them from their slumber. Best, Kathy


      • Thanks very much Kathy for your thoughtful comments. I believe sincerely that if anything positive develops to counter ageism or getting any significant changes to the seniors center model it will probably happen in the USA first. I’d like to stay in touch with you for mutual benefit in the future. My website is- I’m not a consultant. The Seniorpreneur Project is my hobby retirement project. I have also written 36 only articles on my Blog including an article or two about senior centers in my own Province of Alberta, Canada. Mainly because of frustration experienced in Canada I decided to take a long sabbatical from any blog writing. I’d like to connect with you on some of the other social media platforms my Links are on my website. I believe that your 7 dimension idea for seniors health & wellness development is the key and it should be the basic framework for all seniors 50+ transitioning to higher levels of empowerment and self-actualization. Have a wonderful Wednesday!


      • Joe, Thanks for the conversation on a very important topic. I would enjoy staying in touch with you. You exhibit a deep passion to enrich the lives of people as they continue their life journey. Before I go, I’ll leave you with two resources you may be interested in checking out. One is the Service Corps of Retired Executives or SCORE. Their website is The other is the International Council on Active Aging in Vancouver, BC at I will surely check into your site as well. I believe we are connected on LinkedIn. I understand all too well that writers need a sabbatical on occasion as I am just returning from one myself. Recharge those batteries and get back to what you love doing – being a transformational author. Best. Kathy


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