BIOGRAPHY: Risa Breckman, LCSW is the Deputy Director of the New York City Elder Abuse Center. She has been at the forefront of developing programs, protocols, educational forums and materials on elder abuse and neglect.  Ms. Breckman is also an Assistant Professor of Gerontological Social Work in Medicine and Director of Social Work Programs and Education in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Ms. Breckman’s Testimony on Elder Abuse & Mental Health

 Mental illness among older adults is a significant problem.  The following statistics provide a framework for us as we think about the seriousness of what seniors are facing.

  • Over 20% of people 65 and older have a mental illness or substance abuse disorder.
  • About 25% have clinically significant symptoms for depressive disorders with 5% suffering major depression.
  • Anxiety is twice as common as major depression.

We know from research that elder abuse victims suffer from depression more commonly than their non-abused counterparts. Depression often leads to social isolation, which is itself a risk factor for abuse.

What follows? Hopelessness. This, in turn, increases the risk of suicide.

But the emotional devastation of abuse encompasses far more than depression. Anxiety is common for victims, due to the trauma they experience, their on-going fear for their safety and the worries they have for their abusive family members about whom they often care deeply. Victims feel shame and guilt which also contribute to social isolation.

As hard as it is to believe, in NYC in the 21st century, older adults are not routinely screened for mental health problems—or elder abuse—in the many traditional and non-traditional settings where they receive services including, physicians offices, senior centers, social and medical adult day care programs, home health services and case management programs.

Why does this matter?

Elder abuse victims who are depressed or have other debilitating mental health problems can’t really protect themselves. Imagine being elderly and isolated, having been physically injured and worn down from abuse or neglect. Now imagine trying to develop and follow a safety plan, obtain an order of protection or find somewhere else to live while experiencing the fatigue, worthlessness and indecisiveness associated with depression.  This is akin to asking an abuse victim to perform a Sisyphusian feat. Depression may be a consequence of abuse, but it also puts elder abuse victims at risk of continued abuse.

How can we help empower elder abuse victims to make choices leading to a life without mistreatment?

Here four suggestions:


  1. We should require publicly funded health, mental health, and elder service providers to screen for, assess and intervene in elder abuse and neglect. Click here for more.


  1. We should increase the capacity of existing geriatric mental health providers and fund programs in underserved areas. Click here for more.


  1. We need to fund innovative services to reduce the social isolation of elder abuse victims and identify those hidden from view.  Click here for more.


  1. We need multidisciplinary case coordination and review teams in each borough. Click here for more.


One Response to Ms. Breckman’s Testimony on Elder Abuse & Mental Health

  1. […] to yield positive benefits for the mental and emotional well being of older adults. With about 25% of the nation’s older adults expressing clinically significant symptoms for depressive disorde…, it’s important to consider the importance of countering social isolation, which is a serious […]

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