The Role of Culture in Elder Abuse

Link at NCPEA opens in a new tab:


Cultural values, beliefs, and traditions significantly affect family life. They dictate family members’ roles and responsibilities toward one another, how family members relate to one another, how decisions are made within families, how resources are distributed, and how problems are defined. Culture further influences how families cope with stress and determines if and when families will seek help from outsiders. Understanding these factors can significantly increase professionals’ effectiveness. Colleagues, co-workers, and clients themselves, and members of the community members are workers’ most valuable resource in understanding the role of culture. Although it is not possible to achieve an understanding of all the diverse cultures workers are likely to encounter, learning what questions to ask is an important first step:

  • What role do seniors play in the family? In the community?
  • Who, within the family, is expected to provide care to frail members? What happens when they fail to do so?
  • Who makes decisions about how family resources are expended? About other aspects of family life?
  • Who, within the family, do members turn to in times of conflict or strife?
  • What conduct is considered abusive? Is it considered abusive to use an elder’s resources for the benefit of other family members? To ignore a family member?
  • (With immigrant seniors), when did they come to the U.S. and under what circumstances? Did they come alone or with family members? Did other family members sponsor them and, if so, what resources did those family members agree to provide?What is their legal status?
  • What religious beliefs, past experiences, attitudes about social service agencies or law enforcement, or social stigmas may affect community members’ decisions to accept or refuse help from outsiders?
  • Under what circumstances will families seek help from outsiders? To whom will they turn for help (e.g. members of the extended family, respected members of the community, religious leaders, physicians)?
  • What are the trusted sources of information in the community? What television and radio stations, shows, and personalities are considered reliable? What newspapers and magazines do people read?
  • How do persons with limited English speaking or reading skills get their information about resources?

The answers to these questions can provide guidance to professionals in working with members of diverse ethnic and cultural communities. They will help workers understand expectations and dynamics within families and determine what services will be most appropriate and acceptable. They will help workers identify trusted persons who can be called upon for help. Finally, they can provide insight into promising approaches and vehicles for spreading the word about available services.

Resources for learning more about the role of culture in elder abuse

Kosberg, J.I., & Garcia, J.L. (Eds.).(1995). Elder abuse: International and cross-cultural perspectives. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Nerenberg, L. (1995). To reach beyond our grasp: A community outreach guide or professionals in the field of elder abuse. Goldman Institute on Aging. For information on how to order this manual, click here.

Tatara, T. (1999). Understanding elder abuse in minority populations. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Understanding and Combating Elder Abuse in Minority Communities. (1997). Proceedings of a 1997 conference sponsored by the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) and funded by the Archstone Foundation. Single copies are available at no cost from the Archstone Foundation. To request a copy, contact

Last Updated March 2003

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.