On Wednesday, November 13, a domestic violence incident was reported that both stuck out in my mind, and remained there over the weekend, as it pertained to domestic violence in couples over the age of 80. The article, "Husband Charged With Fatally Stabbing His Wife In Cinnaminson" as reported by CBS news, detailed how 83-year-old William Coggins had been formerly charged with murder in the violent death of his 81-year-old wife, Laura Coggins. According to the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, Cinnaminson Police were called to the 55-and-over community on the morning of November 4th, after the husband's brother discovered the lifeless body of Laura Coggins fully clothed in her bathroom with multiple knife wounds. An autopsy later performed confirmed that Laura Coggins' death was a homicide and a result of the multiple stab and slash wounds she sustained. William Coggins, whose bail has been set at $500,000, with a court ordered psychiatric evaluation as a condition of his bail, was taken to a local area hospital for treatment before being taken into police custody. Mr. Coggins was treated for self-inflicted wounds, which were deemed as a result of an apparent suicide attempt. Two of Coggins' neighbors in the 55-and-over community, days after news broke of the homicide were shocked. They described Laura Coggins as "one of the nicest people you would ever meet." Further stating that Laura lived in the home with her husband and that the couple were "very private."
Elder domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economics, and culture. Isolation in particular can become the breeding ground for abuse in older couples. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, somewhere between 1 and 2 million residents in the United States aged 65 and older have been abused, neglected, or exploited by a person with whom they depend on for care or protection. Even with such a staggering number of instances of abuse in older Americans, reports to police and other social services remains minimal. The largest cited reason to not report is the coupled fear that 1) financially the older American cannot sustain their quality of life on their own, and 2) that by the victim reporting the abuse, they believe it will lead to them no longer being able to live in their own home, further stripping them of their freedoms that they currently enjoy.
Another added wrinkle to elder domestic violence is that typically loved ones are the perpetrators. Nine out of ten of the substantiated incidents reported to Adult Protective Services, were caused by family members. In the instances of abuse reported to Adult Protective Services, the perpetrators were spouses or former spouses, domestic partners, adult children, and extended family, with just a slim margin being committed by hired caregivers. Typically domestic violence studies stop short of including couples who are over the age of forty-five, which makes getting a clear picture of the problem all that more difficult. A 2007 study by the American Bar Association entitled "Elder Abuse and Domestic Violence in Later Life," found that elder abuse statistics are alarming. The study held that 84 percent of elder abuse cases are never reported, and as many as 5 million older Americans are abused each year in the United States. Without a legislative push for change in elder abuse laws, the number of older Americans suffering abuse at the hand of a loved one, is set to steadily rise. By the year 2050, a historic change will occur when for the first time in history there will be a greater number of older people on earth than children.
The Philadelphia based law firm of Rosenbaum and Associates works closely with victims of nursing home abuse in order to help residents regain their quality of life and restitution for their injuries. However, not all-elder abuse occurs in a nursing home or long-term facility. The National Institute of Justice, in their June 2013 research brief, found that the vast majority of older Americans choose to reside in their domestic settings, with only about 3 percent residing in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. Accordingly, 89 percent of elder abuse reported to Adult Protective Services occurs in domestic settings. Elder abuse can go undetected for longer periods of time as protective social networks; such as school or work, is no longer part of an older American's everyday life. Much like law can help shape society, so to can society help shape the law.
It speaks volumes the fact that it is incredibly difficult to track down an accurate and updated statistic involving domestic violence in later life, yet it takes less than a minute to find statistics on child or domestic violence rates on both a state and federal level in the United States. Elder abuse lacks a national data collection system and reporting requirements, much like it lacks a definitive definition, and agreed upon statistics. Elder domestic violence is routinely seen as an "invisible" problem, often falling short of the "moral panic" with regard to the broader approach to combating family violence. With out a demand for change little can be done to help curb the systematic abuse of our older Americans. Some believe that apathy and negative attitudes towards "cotton tops" are simply the byproduct of societal and media enforced ageism. Regardless of the root of the cause, we all age, and we all deserve protection.