Elderly Allegheny County residents are at a much higher risk for financial exploitation and mental abuse if they are African-American, according to a University of Pittsburgh study released last week.
The study's results reflected what officials who investigate elder abuse in the area have long known: African-American seniors make up a disproportionate percentage of abuse and neglect victims, typically twice their share of the population.
"I think we have more work to do, that's for sure," said Don Grant, supervisor of Protective Services at the county's Area Agency on Aging. "Definitely with both the marketing of [awareness campaigns] and the intervention."
The Pitt study is one of the first to find statistically significant racial differences in the prevalence of elder abuse, said researcher Scott Beach, associate director of Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research.
Surveying more than 900 county residents over the age of 60, Mr. Beach and three other researchers found that African-American seniors were five times more likely than other seniors to indicate that they had been financially exploited within the past six months. They were twice as likely to indicate that they had experienced psychological mistreatment during the same time period.
African-American seniors also reported a lesser degree of upset with some types of abuse, possibly suggesting habituation to or acceptance of such treatment, according to a 14-page report that the researchers published in The Gerontologist.
Reports of abuse were not investigated through any formal process, Mr. Beach clarified.
"These are answers to survey questions," he said. "They're indicators of potentially more serious problems."
Because the study was based on a random survey, though, it provides another way to look at the issue, he said.
"The main statistics that you see about elder mistreatment usually come from formal adult protective services reports," he said. "But those are the ones that are bad enough to make it into the system, to get detected."
Mr. Grant said the statistics from the study reflect a pattern that the Area Agency on Aging has recognized.
In Allegheny County, just 12.9 percent of the general population is African-American.
But of 87 financial exploitation cases investigated by the agency during fiscal year 2010, nearly 28 percent involved African-American seniors. Of 107 such cases the previous year, more than 35 percent involved African-Americans.
Mr. Grant said he had no "firm answers" about the disparity, though he suggested socio-economic factors may have something to do with it.
The African-American seniors surveyed tended to be younger, less educated, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced or separated than other seniors surveyed. They were also more likely to live with other family members -- instead of a spouse -- and more likely to live alone.
But notably, the abuse disparities the researchers found could not be explained by such factors, they wrote: Compared with seniors of similar backgrounds, African-Americans still were more likely to indicate exploitation and mistreatment.
The survey did not measure income level.
"In hindsight it would have been good to measure income, given the financial exploitation findings," he said.
Mr. Beach also noted that the definitions of abuse and exploitation used by the researchers are not necessarily accepted across the field.
"One of the problems in this area is the definition," he said. "What is elder mistreatment?"
Seniors surveyed were asked four questions about financial exploitation: whether they had signed any forms they didn't understand, whether anyone had asked them to sign something without explaining what it was, whether someone had taken their checks without permission, and whether they suspected someone had tampered with their assets. If they answered yes to one or more, they were counted as indicating financial exploitation.
Seniors were asked eight questions about psychological mistreatment, such as whether someone had threatened to hit them or abandon them. If they answered yes to three or more questions, they were counted as indicating psychological mistreatment.
When the researchers analyzed their data, they found that 12.9 percent of African-American seniors indicated that they had been financially exploited during the past six months, versus 2.4 percent of other seniors, and 16.1 percent of African-American seniors indicated that they had been psychologically mistreated during the past six months, versus 7.2 percent of other seniors.
The researchers hope the study helps raise awareness of elder abuse in minority communities, said Mr. Beach.
"The elders themselves might not even perceive that they're being abused," he said. "It's very complicated."
Vivian Nereim: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1413.