ATrain Education


Continuing Education for Health Professionals

IA: Abuse of Dependent Adults

Module 5

Why Abuse Occurs

There may be no single or simple answer as to why abuse occurs. The literature on family and behavior offers several theories about possible factors that contribute to abuse. These include the following:

  • Retaliation. Someone who was abused as a child may harbor anger and resentment toward the abusive parent. When roles are reversed, the once-abused child sees an opportunity for retaliation and this may be exacerbated if the elderly parent continues to bait the adult child.
  • Violence as a way of life. We live in a violent society. The media are filled with violence, both real and imagined. Violence saturates TV, movies, and video games. Domestic violence is increasingly common, particularly in tough economic times. Family violence often creates generational patterns.
  • Unresolved conflict. Conflict from childhood, from marital or other relationships, creates patterns of abuse that continue without resolution.
  • Lack of close family ties. Lack of closeness in the relationship between adult children and their parents can create stress and frustration when the parent suddenly or gradually becomes dependent. This can lead to abuse.
  • Lack of financial resources. Families who must juggle work and caregiving responsibilities may resent the addition of a dependent adult to the household. Increasing costs for medical care and other services can add to financial stress. Public assistance programs such as SSI and Medicaid may also decrease the dependent person’s stipend if he or she is living with family members.
  • Resentment of dependency. Caring for a frail older person who requires attention and assistance can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Stress and frustration can occur even when there is a close family tie.
  • Increased life expectancy. The dependency period of old age has expanded, leaving caretakers to provide extensive home care for a longer period of time. Smaller families mean fewer children to care for elderly parents and grandparents.
  • History of mental or emotional problems. Someone who is mentally or emotionally unstable may be unable to cope with the demands of caregiving. This can threaten the well-being of both caretaker and dependent adult.
  • Unemployment. Financial and emotional stress raises the level of frustration and weakens self-control.
  • History of alcohol and drug abuse. Substance abuse is often a factor in family violence. Alcohol suppresses inhibitions, making aggressive behavior more likely. This can be a factor for the caretaker as well as for the dependent adult.
  • Long distance caregiver. Today’s mobile population increases the likelihood that adult children may be living far from their parents, increasing the risk of neglect and additional stress.
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