Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that social workers and other care professionals often lack the knowledge and skills to deal confidently with cases where older people are being abused.
It points to a widespread belief that little can be done to help victims and an emphasis on short-term 'rescue' work to the detriment of longer-term support.
The study by Jacki Pritchard is based on confidential, in-depth interviews with women victims of elder abuse and with social care workers in three local authority areas of the north of England:
Most known abusers were male, ranging in age between 90 and 9. They included husbands, brothers, sons, grandsons, neighbours, care workers and gangs of youths.
Physical and emotional abuse were frequently reported by the victims. For example, 80-year old Emma's husband had not only been persistently violent but also tried to persuade her she was mentally ill.
Financial abuse was also frequently described, where money or possessions had been misappropriated or stolen. Joan, aged 78, described how her grandson had systematically sold her jewellery and other personal possessions to buy drugs.
Neglect and sexual assaults were reported much less often. However, sexual abuse of older people remains a taboo subject and victims may be especially reluctant to make disclosures. Some social workers also said they felt insufficiently skilled to recognise the signs and symptoms.
The study finds that victims frequently remained in abusive situations because they did not know how to get practical help - especially the key areas of legal and financial advice and alternative accommodation. They also revealed needs that pointed to the importance of long-term support involving a wide range of agencies working together.
Discussions with social care professionals suggested that workers found it hard to focus on the needs of older victims amid their own concerns about the need for better training and guidelines on handling suspected cases of abuse.
Workers had often failed to acknowledge long-term effects of abuse and trauma when assessing victim's needs and there was an emphasis on short-term 'rescue' plans.
Jacki Pritchard said: 'These research findings confirm that older victims of abuse need practical help and emotional support from workers in a wide range of agencies, but that the necessary resources are not always made available. They also suggest that many professionals are unduly pessimistic about the scope for helping older people who have been abused.
'Abuse had stopped for most of the women interviewed for this study because they chose to leave the situation, because they took positive action to prevent it happening again, or because the abuser had left. When appropriate, long-term support is available, older women clearly can take the decision to leave an abusive situation even when they have lived in it for a large part of their lives.'
The needs of older women: services for victims of elder abuse and other abuse by Jacki Pritchard is published for the foundation by The Policy Press and available from Marston Book Services, P.O. Box 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN (01235 465500), price£16.95 plus£2.50 p&p.