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A Stepping Off Point: Where Does Ageism Fit Into Conversations About Elder Abuse in Tribal Communities?

By Katie Block, MSW, MPH, National Resource Center for Reaching Victims Project Coordinator, National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL), a project of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin

November 21, 2019

I recently had the opportunity to review The International Association for Indigenous Aging (IA2) needs assessment examining barriers to screening and management of elder abuse cases by tribal health care providers. The providers interviewed brought up critical points related to elders limited access to services, interventions, and supports, and what role culture and identity play in that access. As Jolie Crowder points out, this assessment serves as a steppingstone for future conversations about how tribal communities identify and respond to violence against older adults.

A crucial conversation that stands out to me is around what role ageism may play in providers capacity to identify and respond to abuse, and elders’ decisions to disclose violence. Furthermore, how does the intersection of racism and ageism play out for older tribal members experiencing violence, emotional and psychological abuse, or spiritual abuse? Importantly, how does the field help dismantle processes and systems that are bred from those isms?

The World Health Organization defines ageism as the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination towards people on the basis of age. Similar to racism, ageism is a pervasive reality that is so deep seeded and normalized that many people may not recognize it or accept its role. We are told collectively that elders are frail, dependent, stubborn, cognitively declined, incapable of making good decisions for themselves, not interested in contemporary culture etc. What is hard to recognize is how these stereotypes influence how policies are written, programs and systems are designed, decisions are made by providers, and older adults’ perceptions of themselves and their role in their communities.

For those working in the fields of elder abuse, gender-based violence, and healthcare it is essential that we look inward and examine our own biases, as well as look at the system in which we operate. Professionals in the field can work towards creating environments where open conversations can be had about how we make decisions, who our programs are truly designed for, and who’s input we consider when developing initiatives.  

What is even more critical, is that any work done to address abuse centers the voices of older survivors themselves.

In 2011, the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later life (NCALL) partnered with Lauren Litton of I.S.P. Consulting and Victoria Ybanez of Red Wind Consulting to develop Reclaiming What is Sacred: Addressing Harm to Indigenous Elders and Developing a Tribal Response to Abuse in Later Life. This tool, in conjunction with the findings of the IA2 needs assessment can support the field and communities in moving forward with the work needed to address the underlaying factors at in play in the response to elder abuse in tribal communities.

NCALL serves as a lead partner working with the OVC National Resource Center for Reaching Victims (NRC), who provided funding for IA2’s needs assessment. Our goal as a partner with the NRC is to support efforts, such as the work being done by IA2 with this assessment, to help increase access to healing and justice services for victims of crime and abuse who have limited access. To learn more about the NCALL’s work with the NRC and its partners please contact Katie Block, NCALL’s NRC Project Coordinator at

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