International Psychogeriatrics

Special Issue Research Articles

The dark side of family communication: a communication model of elder abuse and neglect

Mei-Chen Lina1 c1 and Howard Gilesa2

a1 School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, USA

a2 Department of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA


To further address the potential factors that lead up to elder abuse in domestic settings, this paper proposes a model from a communication approach to explain dyadic influences between the family caregiver and the elderly care receiver that give rise to the abuse. That is, dysfunctional communication between the caregivers and care receivers may, therefore, increase the likelihood of elder abuse. Grounded in Bugental and her colleagues’ work (1993, 1999, 2002) on child abuse, we propose a power-oriented communication model based, in part, on research in the fields of family violence and intergenerational communication to explain the likelihood of occurrence of elder abuse in family caregiving situations. We argue that certain risk factors pertaining to caregivers’ characteristics – those who perceive high stress in caregiving, have mental health issues, have a history of substance abuse, and/or display verbal aggressiveness – may be more likely to attribute considerable power to those elderly under their custodianship. At the same time, such caregivers tend to feel powerless and experience loss of control when interacting with their elderly counterparts. When an elderly care receiver displays noncompliant behaviors, caregivers may be prone to employ abusive behaviors (in our model, it refers to physical abuse, verbal abuse, or communication neglect) to seek such compliance. Consequences of such abuse may result in lower self-esteem or lower confidence in one's ability to manage his/her life. It is suggested that researchers and practitioners investigate both parties’ interactions closely and the role of elderly care receivers in order to detect, intervene, and prevent elder abuse.

(Received July 27 2012)

(Reviewed September 16 2012)

(Revised December 11 2012)

(Accepted December 12 2012)

(Online publication February 07 2013)

Key words:

  • elderly;
  • elder abuse;
  • intergenerational communication;
  • intergroup communication;
  • family violence;
  • perceived power;
  • family caregiving;
  • elder maltreatment


c1 Correspondence should be addressed to: Mei-Chen Lin, PhD, School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44224-0001, USA. Phone: +1-330-672-0281; Fax: +1-330-672-3510. Email: