Elder Abuse: Five Case Studies

[1990, 40 min.] The video acquaints us with another dimension of family violence by sharing the stories of five older adult victims of abuse. The abused elders include four women and one man, and one person of color. Each case is tracked through time so that viewers learn what happened to the subjects months afterwards. Throughout the video there is ample evidence of appropriate and effective interventions by social services representatives and counselors. The dynamics of abusive relationships between adult children and their parents or between older adult spouses are revealed in painful detail.


In the past generation our society has become more aware of and sensitive to the problems relating to child abuse. The video acquaints us with another dimension of family violence by sharing the stories of five older adult victims of abuse. One of the strengths of this video is that each case is tracked through time so that viewers learn what happened to the subjects months afterwards. This perspective of also sheds light on details of the cycle of abuse. Over and over the victims express hope that the abuser will change. Repeatedly they return to the site of the abuse and experience again renewed feelings of despair and hopelessness. Throughout the video there is ample evidence of appropriate and effective interventions by social services representatives and counselors. But plans that are articulated in counseling often are not carried out.

The dynamics of abusive relationships between adult children and their parents or between older adult spouses are revealed in painful detail in this video. The five victims include four women and one man, and one person of color. The abusers are three sons and two husbands. The obvious question raised in each case is why the older adult remains in such an abusive environment. The video does not seek to provide easy answers to this question. Instead, the director lets the abused--and even the abusers--speak for themselves. The outcome reflects the conflicting emotional agendas within family systems and the often self-contradictory responses made both by abused and abusers to the dynamics of their relationships. It is clear from this video that law enforcement officials, social service representatives, and counselors face extraordinary odds when attempting to overcome the cycle of elder abuse in families.

Another strength of the video is that it documents the dynamics of the relationships between abuser and abused. The camera doesn't lie. In one counseling session a son's nonverbal cues reveal his unwillingness to respond to his mother's point of view; in another scene an older woman's husband expresses his remoteness and unremitting anger when he complains about her in the presence of the interviewer; in another instance a daughter is barely able to restrain her anger and bitterness when she declares that her mother "is not a forgiving person"; lastly, a mother's face is set with determination when, after the fourth severe beating by her son, she finally agrees to press charges against him. All of these cases are reminders of the contradictions that are at the heart of elder abuse. The narrator concludes that for those who work with such cases of elder abuse the goal is "to empower the victims to make his or her own choices." This video contains a series of moving testimonials to the consequences of abuse; it will assist in that process of empowerment for those elders who have been abused and for those professionals who work with them.

Pre-Viewing Notes and Activities

The director opens the video with a voice-over: ďWhat follows is a candid look at five separate cases of domestic violence against an older adult. The cases are real, not made up or scripted, and the subjects are the victims themselves, not actors. ď

Summary of Scenes

A narrator, the director, introduces the video: "What follows is a candid look at five separate cases of domestic violence against an older adult. The cases are real, not made up or scripted, and the subjects are the victims themselves, not actors." Throughout the video the director provides contextual information about the subjects, always in voice-over, and at the end of each segment explains, again in voice-over, what happened to the subjects after the videotaping ended.

  1. NORMAN: He is 77. He lives at home with his wife and two sons, who are 46 and 47. Both sons are unemployed and not interested in seeking employment. Norman has been beaten several times by his sons. "Sometimes I think, ĎWhy does it happen to me?í" Norman is videotaped at a police station. He talks to a Chicago Police Department Senior Services representative. The director provides background information through voice-over. Norman is recovering from a beating at the hands of one of his sons a few weeks ago. He didnít sign a complaint because he feared a more severe beating. "When I get in the house, Iím done," he says flatly.
  2. The Senior Services counselor notes that the first time she met Norman was in the emergency room of the hospital. He was beaten by his son because he used his sonís towel to dry himself . Stitches were required to close the wound. "He was just battered." Norman says, "I always think itís going to get better. It only lasts so long." The counselor summarizes his plight. His sons use his Social Security and pension income, and Norman has to work part-time simply to have his own spending money. The counselor notes that Norman finally pressed charges. A court date was set and the two sons posted bond. Norman admits, "If I go back, itíll happen again. And maybe theyíll kill me one of these days."
  3. Norman and the director meet at a restaurant some time later. Norman dropped the charges against his sons. Why? "Itís a hard question to answer. I donít want to see them put away." Why stay with them? "Itís not very easy to answer." He says that he has no other family in the area, and that he wants to be with his family. "Iím 77, where can I go?" The director asks if he has visited a Senior Center to make contacts with other people his age. Norman says he will visit the Center soon--when the weather improves. He tells the director that when his sons go out, they make him stay in the house, whether he wants to or not.
  4. Later, the director and Norman walk together in Normanís neighborhood. He reminisces about his sons when they were children. He refers to his upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. When the director asks again about where he would live if another beating occurred, Norman answers, "Staying and living with my family." The director notes that Norman had been beaten again by one of his sons and was hospitalized for three days. But he returned to live with his family again. The narrator concludes, "His family rarely lets him go anywhere by himself."
  5. DOROTHY AND GARY: Dorothy lives with her adult son, Gary. Gary, unemployed and alcoholic, is the abuser. We see them in a counseling session. Dorothy relates instances of the abuse. She tells the counselor, "It comes as such a surprise to me always because I never really expect it from him." The two counselors repeatedly encourage Dorothy to move into her own apartment. But each time they suggest this idea, Gary becomes defensive and complains that he is being taken advantage of. He refers to a financial arrangement with his mother that did not work out: "Iím the kid whose contract was broken, and now Iím in the position of defending myself." He physically turns away from the counselors and his mother to emphasize his feeling of isolation and estrangement. Later he says, "It puts me in the position of looking like the bad guy." The two counselors continue to advise Dorothy about ways to change the basis of her relationship with Gary. She says, "I think it would be wiser for two separate places. I havenít wanted to. Iíve tried to argue myself out of it. . . ." At the end of the segment the counselors try to affirm Dorothyís ability to say "no" to her son. Dorothy and Gary stayed in counseling only another six months. The director notes that Gary was not physically abusive to her during this period; but he continued to have problems with alcoholism.
  6. PAT: She is shown talking to a counselor at a battered woman's shelter. In a quiet voice she relates the ongoing abuse from her husband of 45 years. She tells a story of him pointing a handgun at her head and threatening to shoot her. Then he jokes that the trigger was locked. She tried to live apart from him two years ago, but she moved back in with him after experiencing some medical problems. "He's got my brains like scrambled eggs," she says. "All I want is peace and quiet--nobody harassing me." She describes in painful detail his physical abuse.
  7. Pat returned to the shelter a month after the first interview. At that time she was interviewed a second time. "My emotional state when I came here was that life wasnít worth living--that I would be better off dead. I was thinking of ways I could commit suicide without leaving a mess." She recalls earlier in the marriage when she left her husband, but then returned because of financial constraints. When she tries to separate from him, he would always pleads with her, "Why are you doing this? I love you. Youíre the only thing in my life."
  8. Pat's experiences reflect another aspect of the cycle of abuse: although she says she wants the abuse to end, she reveals a deep-seated desire, and almost a sense of responsibility, to change her husband's behavior. She admits, "Look how many years Iíve wasted by thinking heís going to change. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to nurture him. I felt I could handle him." She always dreamed that someday, when her children grew up and left home, she would leave her husband. But she never thought about her own aging and her increasing frailty. "I thought I was going to stay the same age." She asserts, "And I am bound an determined I am going to have peace and quiet." She acknowledges that she returned to the shelter because of his continuing assaults. "Heís been battering me all this time. I began to ask, ĎWhen are you going to batter him? When are you going to give him part of whatís heís given you.íd"d The narrator explains that she planned to move into a private senior apartment when one became available. She tells the counselor at the shelter, "I never thought I had a life. When I came here the last time I was hopeless. But now you have given me a little hope." In the meantime she was hospitalized. When she recovered, she returned home.
  9. One month after she returned home her husband had a serious stroke. After living in a nursing home for three months, he returned home when the money ran out. We see them at home, and the director interviews her there. Three times the husband interrupts the interview. He complains about her selfishness, about the poor care she provides him. "She can't subtract, she canít add, she can't do nothing," he snaps. Pat declares, "If everything pans out, I will eventually leave." But four months later Pat suffers a heart attack and dies.
  10. LUCILLE: Lucille, an African-American woman, 69, has severe diabetes and is nearly blind. She is divorced and lives with her daughter. Lucille has experienced 16 years of abuse. Her ex-husband lived with her on and off in the following years. Despite her knowledge of this history of abuse, Lucille's daughter has arranged for Lucille's husband to stay with her mother during the day. We see a counselor visit Lucille and her daughter at home. The counselor acts as an advocate for Lucille. She informs the daughter that Lucille does not want her ex-husband alone with her during the day, while the daughter is at work. She says that Lucille is afraid the stress will kill her. "I donít want him around me,"Lucille says. The daughter responds, "Thereís two sides to every story." The daughter is adamant: "She can't be alone." She refuses to consider a nursing home as an option for her mother. Despite the counselor's warning that Lucille is afraid that her ex-husband will continue to abuse her, the daughter refuses to change the present arrangement. "My mother is going to have to adjust," she insists. When the counselor presses her, she says, "I understand my Mother. I know sheís not happy, but things are going to get better. She must be patient." The counselor probes, "And if she canít?" The daughter agrees that she will consider a different living arrangement at that point. The director notes that Lucille suffered a stroke and now lives with another daughter in Michigan. Her ex-husband lives with her.
  11. MARY: She has experienced eight years of abuse. The opening of this segment is painful to watch because it incorporates photographs of Mary after she was beaten by her son. Both of her eyes are blackened, and there are numerous bruises on the rest of her face and arms. She is shown at a shelter two weeks after her last beating. Her son has abused her for eight years. She recalls that her son had stabbed her several times at an earlier date. She explains that he was addicted to drug and alcohol at that time. At first Mary did not press charges against her son. She explains, "You get three chances in life. He said he was sorry. I couldnít understand what I had done wrong." She thought, "Heíll outgrow it. He was 19." But then she recounts the fourth assault. "He has to learn sometime. Iím very bitter. I love him, but this time I can not forgive him. Maybe Iím wrong." She pressed charges, and he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
  12. A few weeks later, Mary is shown at a support group for battered women. A counselor refers to Garyís impending release from prison. "Iím not afraid of him," she says. She adds, "If he ever hurt me again, I will get even. I told him, Iíll kill you if you hit me again.í I wanted revenge." Later Mary has a one-to-one counseling session with another counselor. The latter asks Mary if she would let her son in her house if he knocked on her door. "You know yourself, being a mother, you would let him in," Mary says. The counselor reminds her that her son has beaten her repeatedly. "But I forgive easy," she says. "I would always help him." The counselor tries to encourage her "to be smart . . . to have a plan. I wouldnít be alone in the house with him." The director notes that her son did not attempt to see her when he got out on parole.
  13. The director concludes, "The struggle for a life free from physical violence and/or emotional abuse is always unique, because of the different individuals involved. Each individual has his or her own set of personal strengths and weaknesses, and their own set of circumstances. The goal of those who work with such cases its to empower the victims to make his or her own choices, explore with them what those choices are and what the consequences may be for the choices they make."

Discussion Questions and Sample Worksheet

Text of The Great Circle of Life: A Resource Guide to Films and Videos on Aging, copyright © 1987, 1999, 2005, Robert E. Yahnke. All photographs copyrighted by Robert E. Yahnke.  All rights reserved.  Contact author for permission to copy photographs or reprint portions of text.


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