Elder Abuse Can Come in Subtle Ways

Elder Abuse Can Come in Subtle Ways

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


As the NYAC Older Adult Committee gears up for an April program on recognizing and responding to elder abuse, it has been struck by the ways (often unconscious) that congregations allow such abuse to continue in their midst.

Among them: There is the manipulation that family and other loved ones and friends often participate in when they have access to their loved one’s money. There is asking for donations, when there is a question of a person’s ability to understand her finances.

I was grateful when a financial secretary at a church I was serving came to see me about an aging parishioner whose weekly donations had begun getting larger every week. Normally very discreet, the financial person said she didn’t want to deposit the checks until we checked with the parishioner’s daughter, who had grown up in the congregation and now lived miles away. When the daughter flew in to see what was happening, it was apparent that her mother had advancing dementia and was not capable of handling her own finances.

Thank God for the financial secretary. Someone else might have said, “She must have enough or she couldn’t be writing the check,” and simply deposited them in the church account. 

There is the often-subtle exclusion of very capable older adults from committees and planning, because “we need to respect their age.” It is abusive when it sidelines them from activities or limits and devalues them needlessly.

Other forms of abuse are subtle, unintentional, and perhaps not technically abusive, but ever so harmful. Communications sent electronically, without printed communications for those who don’t have computers comes to mind. As do bulletins with fonts that are not easily read, bulletin boards that are too high or inaccessible, or meetings in rooms without easy access. Lack of accessibility is not always simply remedied with the installation of a ramp or elevator.

In so far as possible, every aspect of church calls for accessibility. Sound, location and times of meetings—everything needs to be accessible. To the extent that “everything” is not being done to the best of the congregation’s ability serves as a message. There is no full welcome here, whether it is intended or unintended.