Criminal Victimization of the Elderly

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Criminal victimization

One of the most unequivocal findings in the social science literature is the negative relationship between age and the probability of violent victimization (for review, see Fattah and Sacco, 1989). That is, older individuals are significantly less likely to become victims of violence than younger age cohorts. This reality is perhaps one of the reasons why the needs of elderly victims of crime have been virtually ignored in American society. Research, however, has revealed that behind this backdrop of decreased risk, elderly citizens in the United States experience unique patterns of vulnerability to victimization. Thus, though the elderly are less likely to experience a criminal victimization compared with younger individuals, patterns of vulnerability across age groups are very different. This essay we will provide an epidemiological assessment of victimization against the elderly based on U.S. statistics and show how this victimization varies across the life course.

Homicide victimization. Table 1 presents average annual rates of homicide by age group, gender, and race for 1992-1997. As can be seen, individuals sixty-five or older were much less likely to be victims of homicide across both gender and racial categories. The gender differential between males and females diminishes, however, for the elderly. For example, males under the age of sixty-five were four times more likely to become the victims of homicide, compared with their female counterparts, where as males age sixty-five or older were only twice as likely as females age sixty-five or older to be victims of homicide. African-Americans in both age groups had significantly higher rates of homicide compared with both Caucasians and individuals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Table 2 presents the relationship between homicide victims and offenders during 1992-1997, by age group. While the absolute rates of homicide were lower for those sixty-five years of age or older, individuals in this age group were a unique vulnerability to intimates (spouses, exspouses, boy/girlfriends, ex-boy/girlfriends) and other relatives compared to younger individuals. However, they were 50 percent less likely than victims between the ages of twelve and sixty-four to have been killed by intimates.

Nonlethal violent and property victimization. Average annual rates of nonlethal violent and property crime victimization by age of victim and type of crime from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) are presented in Table 3. The probability of experiencing all types of crime was significantly lower for those sixty-five years of age or older compared with those sixty-four and younger. The exception to this is for personal theft victimizations such as purse snatching and pocket picking. Individuals both under and over the age of sixty-five had similar rates of victimization for this type of personal theft.

Since robbery and assault victimizations are the most common type of violence experienced by all age groups, it is important to examine these crimes in greater detail. Table 4 presents the average annual rates of robbery and assault by gender and age group. The probability of experiencing either a robbery or an assault decreases with older age among both males and females. The risk differential is, however, clearly more marked for assault victimization compared with robbery. For example, females younger than twenty-five were more than thirty times more likely to experience an assault than females older than sixty-five. However, females age twenty-five and younger were seven times more likely, compared with those sixty-five and older, to experience robbery. Another pattern that emerges from Table 4 is the differential vulnerability to robberies between males and females across the life course. Males younger than the age of sixty-five were at least 1.5 times more likely to experience a robbery compared with their female counterparts. However, for those older than sixty-five, the ratio of male to female robbery victims dropped to approximately 1.2 Men and women older than sixty-five, therefore, appear to have a roughly equivalent risk of being a robbery victim. This is unlike any other period during the life course.

Table 5 examines the contextual characteristics of robbery and assault victimizations of the elderly in greater detail by specifying the place of occurrence, weapon presence, injury status, and victim/offender relationship by age and gender of victim. Several vulnerabilities emerge from this table. First, elderly women were more likely to sustain injuries as a result of both robbery and assault. Further, while elderly men were less likely to sustain injuries compared with other victims, both elderly men and women who were injured were more likely to require medical care compared with younger victims who were injured. It is also important to note that the elderly were more vulnerable to being robbed and assault at or near their private residences, compared with younger victims.

Trends in personal victimization. Figure 1 displays average annual rates of violent crime by age group for 1992-1997. Included are incidents of murder, rape, robbery, and assault. While rates of violence for all age groups declined during this period, the rate decline was more dramatic for younger individuals compared with those between the ages of fifty and sixty-four or those sixty-five and older.

Rates of personal theft (e.g., pocket-picking and purse snatching) are displayed in Figure 2 (see page 303). This graphically illustrates that, except for those under the age of twenty-four, those sixty-five and older have been equally vulnerable to personal theft compared with their younger age cohorts. In fact, during 1992-1994 individuals aged sixty-five and older experienced rates of personal theft higher than those between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four.


In general, individuals older than sixty-five are significantly less likely than younger individuals to experience a crime victimization. The exception is for personal theft, such as pocket picking and purse snatching, in which the elderly are just as vulnerable as those younger than sixty-five years of age. In addition, elderly women are just as likely as elderly men to experience a robbery victimization. This is important. At no other time in the life course are men and women equally vulnerable to becoming the victims of robbery. Thus, the elderly appear particularly vulnerable to crimes of economic predation.

These patterns of victimization have important implications related to issues of quality of life for many elderly citizens. While victimization undoubtedly has dramatic consequences for people's health and sense of security, fear of victimization is also inextricably related to feelings of well-being. By 2030 the United States will become a nation in which those older than the age of sixty-five will represent 20 percent of the total population. While government officials strive to consider what this growth will do to such programs as Social Security and Medicare, very little attention has been given to issues regarding the quality of life older Americans can come to expect, including feelings of safety. Of the policy initiatives directed at crime, virtually all have ignored crime against the elderly, including the Omnibus Crime Prevention and Control Act implemented by Congress in 1994. Clearly, more research is needed to understand and explain the unique vulnerabilities to crime that older persons in our society face. Only through such empirical assessments can policies aimed at preventing such violence be responsibly enacted.

Ronet Bachman

See also Criminal Behavior; Elder Abuse and Neglect


Bachman, R., H. Dillaway; and Lachs, M. S. "Violence Against the Elderly: A Comparative Analysis of Robbery and Assault Across Age and Gender Groups" Research on Aging 20, no.2 (1998): 183198.

Fattah, E. A.; and Sacco, V.F. Crime and Victimization of the Elderly. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Klaus, P. A. Crimes Against Persons Age 65 or Older, 1992-1997. NCJ 176352. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.

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Criminal Victimization of the Elderly

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