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Uniform Definitions and Data Elements for Collecting Information About Elder Abuse


Elder abuse is an important public health problem that has negative consequences on the health and well-being of older adults and contributes to avoidable health spending. Studies have found that elder abuse leads to increased use of emergency room and in-patient hospital care, and estimates are that annual costs associated with such abuse are over $5.3 billion.

The U.S. Administration on Aging defines elder abuse as any knowing, intentional or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. Evidence suggests that abuse of vulnerable older adults is common in the United States and will become more prevalent as the population ages.

All states have elder abuse prevention laws and collect data related to such abuse, but they vary in how they define elder abuse; how they collect data for, and report incidences of such abuse; and what specific information about an episode they capture. In addition, there is no national standardized reporting system for elder abuse. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine the public health burden of the abuse on a national level, to compare the problem across states, cities and counties, and to establish national trends and patterns. Common definitions and data elements can help public health officials improve surveillance, evaluate the effectiveness of prevention and intervention strategies across the states, and establish national priorities for the control and prevention of elder abuse.

To address the problem of inconsistent definitions and data collection approaches, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report proposing uniform definitions and core sets of data elements across 11 domains. Examples of these domains include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, caregiver neglect and financial abuse. States’ use of these standardized definitions and data elements is voluntary.

Using consistent definitions and collecting uniform data elements about particular types of elder abuse will make it easier to make comparisons across states, understand the scope of the problem across the country, and target resources more effectively to combat such abuse. The next useful step would be to establish a national reporting system that requires all states to use the CDC’s uniform definitions and core data elements.

Here is a link to AARP’s comments to the Administration for Community Living’s Draft Voluntary Consensus Guidelines for State Adult Protective Services Systems:




Lynda Flowers is a senior strategic policy adviser specializing in Medicaid issues, health disparities and public health.





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