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Pitt Researchers report African American
Seniors at twice the risk for Mental Abuse,
five-times for Financial Exploitation
September 2010--In the first population-based survey to indicate a racial
disparity in the psychological abuse of
senior citizens, University of Pittsburgh
researchers found that African American
seniors could be twice as likely to be
mistreated than elders of other races.
The survey also revealed that African American
elders could be up to five times more
susceptible to being swindled. Reporting the
survey results in The
Gerontologist, the researchers
urged that health care and social service
workers be especially vigilant for the
possible mistreatment of African American
Lead author Scott
Beach, assistant director of
Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR)
and director of the center’s Survey Research
Program, said the study is important to the
developing field of elderly abuse research.
Beach worked with coauthorsRichard
Schulz, director of UCSUR
and the center’s gerontology program; Nicholas
Castle, a professor of
health policy and management in Pitt’s
Graduate School of Public Health; and Jules
Rosen, a professor of
psychiatry in Pitt’s School of Medicine.
The Pitt survey is among only a few that focus
on race as a specific factor in elder
mistreatment, Beach said.
In addition, the population-based survey
collected information directly from senior
citizens through face-to-face and telephone
interviews, the most effective way to
document unreported abuse, he explained;
typically, elder mistreatment data is
gathered from complaints filed with Adult
In this way, the Pitt study helps fill a noted
gap in elder mistreatment research: The
National Research Council, in its 2003
described existing elder abuse research as
having “a number of weaknesses,” including a
lack of clear, consistent definitions and an
absence of population-based data.
The team interviewed 903 adults—a statistically
large sample—aged 60 and older living in
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County about
instances of psychological abuse and
financial exploitation occurring within the
past 6 months and since they had turned 60.
The sample contained 210 African Americans, or
23.2 percent of respondents, which is nearly
twice the proportion of African Americans
living in Allegheny County, Beach said.
Psychological mistreatment included being
yelled at or insulted, having personal
property destroyed, and receiving threats of
injury, stoppage of care, or being sent to a
nursing home. Among African Americans, 24.4
percent reported being abused since turning
60 and 16.1 percent reported psychological
mistreatment within the past 6 months.
Around half as many non-Black seniors reported
abuse with 13.2 percent claiming
psychological abuse since turning 60 and 7.2
percent saying it happened within the
Interestingly, African Americans were usually
less upset by aggressive behavior, yet more
African Americans reported being “extremely
upset” when deliberately insulted or when
their belongings were destroyed.
African Americans reported even higher
instances of financial exploitation, which
was defined as having checks stolen, having
money tampered with, and being made to sign
documents they did not understand.
Only 8.4 percent of non-African American elders
reported being cheated since turning 60 and
a mere 2.4 percent said it happened within
the past 6 months.
On the other hand, 23 percent of African
Americans claimed that someone meddled with
their money since they turned 60 and 12.9
percent said it occurred recently.
Most striking about the team’s findings was
that the racial disparity in mental abuse or
financial exploitation was not explained by
additional factors such as education,
health, age, or socioeconomic status, Beach
On average, African Americans in the
survey tended to be slightly younger, less
educated, and more likely to be single,
divorced, or widowed. Nonetheless,
non-African Americans of similar means,
years, schooling, and marital status were
still less likely to report mistreatment or
financial deceit, Beach said.
Beach plans to follow up on the survey by
including seniors from other parts of the
country, interviewing the perpetrators, and
developing more standardized definitions of
the various types of psychological
mistreatment and financial exploitation.