Senior citizens who are black are more likely to be the victims of psychological and financial abuse as elders of other races.

According to a new survey, published in The Gerontologist African American elders could be up to five times more susceptible to being cheated financially. The survey is among only a few that focus on race as a specific factor in elder mistreatment, says Scott Beach, assistant director of Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) at the University of Pittsburgh.

The population-based survey collected information directly from senior citizens through face-to-face and telephone interviews -- the most effective way to document unreported abuse, he says. Typically, elder mistreatment data is gathered from complaints filed with Adult Protective Services.

The National Research Council (NRC), in its 2003 report, Elder Mistreatment, described existing elder abuse research as having "a number of weaknesses," including a lack of clear, consistent definitions and an absence of population-based data.

Reliance on self-reporting

The team interviewed 903 adults -- a statistically large sample -- aged 60 and older living in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County about instances of psychological abuse and financial exploitation occurring within the past 6 months and since they had turned 60.

The sample contained 210 blacks, or 23.2 percent of respondents, which is nearly twice the proportion of African Americans living in Allegheny County, Beach says.

Psychological mistreatment includes being yelled at or insulted, having personal property destroyed, and receiving threats of injury, stoppage of care, or being sent to a nursing home.

Incidence of mistreatment

Among black seniors, 24.4 percent reported being abused since turning 60 and 16.1 percent reported psychological mistreatment within the past six months. Around half as many non-blacks reported abuse with 13.2 percent claiming psychological abuse since turning 60 and 7.2 percent saying it happened within the previous half-year.

Interestingly, blacks were usually less upset by aggressive behavior, yet more of them reported being "extremely upset" when deliberately insulted or when their belongings were destroyed.

Older black people reported even higher instances of financial exploitation, which was defined as having checks stolen, having money tampered with, and being made to sign documents they did not understand.

Only 8.4 percent of non-black elders reported being cheated since turning 60 and a mere 2.4 percent said it happened within the past six months. On the other hand, 23 percent of African Americans claimed that someone meddled with their money since they turned 60 and 12.9 percent said it occurred recently.

No explanation

Most striking about the results was that the racial disparity in mental abuse or financial exploitation was not explained by additional factors such as education, health, age, or socioeconomic status, Beach says.

On average, blacks in the survey tended to be slightly younger, less educated, and more likely to be single, divorced, or widowed.

Nonetheless, non-African Americans of similar means, years, schooling, and marital status were still less likely to report mistreatment or financial deceit.

Beach says he plans to follow up on the survey by including seniors from other parts of the country, interviewing the perpetrators, and developing more standardized definitions of the various types of psychological mistreatment and financial exploitation.