Since the early 19th century the victim of crime had a limited and largely passive role in the criminal justice system. The rise in intellectual preoccupation with victimology has been seen by many commentators (Maguire& Pointing, 1988; Mawby & Walklate, 1994; Zedner, 1997; Croall, 1998) to be a result of the seminal work of Mendelsohn (1947) and von Hentig (1948).
In its original form however, the discipline that came to be known as victimology devoted much of its energy to the study of the how victims contribute, knowingly or unknowingly, to their own victimisation, and the possible ways they were thought to share responsibility with offenders for specific crimes. These early works have been criticised for their tendency to blame the victim and the negative effects this produced for the victims (Walklate, 1989; Croall, 1998). In the last thirty years, the interest of a number of researchers has turned toward the victim proper.
This was due in part to a period of race riots and urban unrest in 1960s USA (Clarke & Lewis, 1982; Zedner, 1997) and partly a result of a growing number of victim surveys that were conducted at the time (Maxfield, 1984). Criminologists came to recognize that victimisation was a major dependent variable in their field and it quickly became clear that there are two kinds of victims (Williams et al, 2000). Firstly there are the traditional victims of crime. These are individuals who suffer as a consequence of offences such as assault, robbery and theft for example.
Second, there are those victimised by the fear of crime regardless of whether or not they have personally experienced a crime (Williams et al, 2000). Fear of crime as a form of victimisation, with the exception of serious bodily harm, demonstrates a potential for greater damage than traditional victimisation because of the effect of lasting stress combined with changes in behaviour that can affect the quality of an individuals life ( Zedner, 1997; Williams et al, 2000). Fear of crime as a separate issue has gained momentum over the past twenty to thirty years.
When the issue first emerged researchers became interested in it as a means of discovering the 'dark figure' of crime, that is, the crime that goes unreported (Stanko, 1988; Zedner, 1997). Of particular concern was the subject of fear of crime among the elderly population as this sector of the community raised concerns to social planners (Jones, 1987). This concern resulted from the fact that the elderly reported extremely high levels of fear of crime despite their status as the least likely to become a victim of crime (Clarke & Lewis, 1982; Pain, 1995).
This essay will examine this paradoxical situation between fear of crime among elderly people and the elderlys' actual rates of victimisation. It will explain factors that are thought to contribute to this contradictory situation. These factors include the definition of fear of crime and methods of measuring fear. It will also look at elderly peoples' risk of becoming a victim of crime and their vulnerability to crime. The term elderly when related to human beings is usually associated with all people over the age of 65 years who have retired from employment and live on a pension and state benefits.
In recent years however, the term elderly has undergone a transformation in order to more accurately reflect the elderly population. This is due in part to the fact that a great number of individuals are taking early retirement before they reach the age of 65 and also in part to the fact that people are living longer than they used to. Forcing everyone over the age of 65 into one category does not produce an accurate picture as to the actual make up of elderly people. As a result of extended life spans, elderly people make up a larger percentage of the total population in developed countries than ever before.
In order to discuss this seemingly 'irrational' fear of crime among the elderly population (Hough & Mayhew, 1983) it may be prudent to examine data that measure the elderly population. Population statistics in the UK show marked increases in the numbers of elderly people in the general population and future projections estimate that the elderly population will increase even more. This is particularly the scenario for the groups that gerontologists classify as the very old (those aged 75+ years) and the 'old, old' (that is those aged 85+).
A similar picture emerges in the United States where during the 20th century the number of persons under age 65 has tripled. At the same time, the number aged 65 or over has increased by a factor of 11 (U. S. Census Bureau). Consequently, the elderly, who comprised only 1 in every 25 Americans (3. 1 million) in 1900, made up 1 in 8 (33. 2 million) in 1994 and is expected to reach 80 million by the year 2050. The 85 and over age group are, as in the UK, the most rapidly expanding elderly age group. Census figures show that between 1960 and 1994, their numbers rose 274 percent.
It could be possible that the growing numbers of the elderly in the general population could reflect to some degree the growing amount of fear of crime that is being expressed in victim surveys in many countries. Results of early surveys designed to determine fear of crime was theorised to be related to actual experiences of victimisation. Indeed Clarke and Lewis (1982) cite a 1970s study in the United States by Butler (1975) which concluded that fear of crime in the elderly arose from the fact that they were believed to be victimised more than any other age group.
This was thought to be because they were 'suitable targets' (Greve, 1998) and would be unable to defend themselves or escape. However, this assumption was to be disputed and subsequent studies have stressed that victimisation rates for the elderly are lower than any other age group over twelve years old (Clarke & Lewis, 1982; Pain, 1995). Researchers realised that numerous other factors played a role in the fear of crime. It is thus been postulated that the elderly have an illogical fear of crime when compared to their actual rates of victimisation.
Research in the UK such as the British Crime Survey (BCS) concurs, highlighting the fact that elderly people show greater levels of fear of crime despite evidence that suggests that the elderly are the least likely to become victims of crime. Victimisation surveys conducted in both the UK and the USA have highlighted the fact that victimisation rates for elderly people are consistently low (Doerner & Lab, 1998). The National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS) conducted in 1994 found that the most victimised groups in the United States were young people, males and blacks.
Individuals aged 65 years and over, whilst making up 14. 6 percent of the population, only experienced 2. 2 percent of victimisation. Hough and Mayhew (1983) present data from the British Crime Survey which stresses that elderly people worry about being on the streets after dark. This finding is in spite of the fact that they are the least likely group to be victimised in a public place (Pain, 1995). The groups that are more likely to become victims of crime, namely the young and males, are in truth the least likely to show any fear of being victimised (Clarke & Lewis, 1982).
Even though there is no general agreement among researchers about a definition of fear of crime (Doerner and Lab, 1998), there are fundamental components of the concept upon which a number of researchers agree including Pain et al (2000). Generally, fear of crime is taken to correspond to an individuals' diffuse sense of danger about being physically harmed by criminal attack. It is associated with concern about being outside the home, probably in an urban area, alone and potentially vulnerable to personal harm (Stanko, 1995).
For the purposes of many studies, fear of crime describes the wide range of emotional and practical responses to crime and disorder, which individuals and communities may make. Indeed, Ferraro (1995) provides one of the most recognised definitions of fear of crime. It is described as an emotional response of dread or anxiety to crime or symbols that a person associates with crime. As researchers became aware of the fear of crime phenomenon, they focused on a search for related variables that may explain this concern about crime. Several important relationships were located, including age.
While there have been a number of criticisms about how the concept of fear of crime is constructed (Shapland et al 1985; Akers et al, 1987; Crawford et al, 1990), the concept itself and what it is presumed to represent, citizen anxiety about crime and disorder, is now treated as a social problem in its own right. This is precisely because those segments of the population who are found to be most fearful, women and the elderly, do not report (at least on large scale crime surveys) significant levels of criminal victimisation (Stanko, 1995).
Criticisms of the methods of measuring fear of crime have been made that could account for the significant difference in the elderly populations fear of crime when compared to their actual rates of victimisation. Typically, the classic fear of crime question that appears on victimisation surveys is: How safe do you feel walking alone in your neighbourhood alone after dark (Hough & Mayhew 1983; 1985)? Critics (Stanko, 1995; Zedner, 1997; Doerner & Lab, 1998; Williams et al, 2000) argue that this type of question contained within many victim surveys is too broad and does not necessarily provoke emotional responses for participants.
They may also elicit answers that do not relate to crime. Answers could include a fear of the dark (Zedner, 1997) or an elderly persons perception about crime in the area and not their fears of becoming a victim (Clarke & Lewis, 1982). Other concerns may include being hit by a car in a high traffic area or the fear of falling due to physical frailty (Williams et al, 2000). Indeed as Zedner (1997) points out, the response obtained from this type of survey question may reflect more about the strengths or weaknesses of the individual and not their perceptions of actual risk.
Agreement comes from Kury et al (2001) who stress that the form of questioning used in surveys often assesses general anxieties about life's ups and downs. If all fear produced on the streets after dark is evaluated as fear of crime this may then show up as evidence of the elderly possessing a greater fear of crime and victimisation than is actually the case. Williams et al (2000) also attack the methods with which different groups within the same locality have been surveyed, such as the elderly and ethnic minorities, in order to gauge their fear of crime.
The authors state that because of the concern with surveying or reporting dissimilarity in levels of fear in different groups, scant attention has been paid to thorough comparisons of these groups. If properly compared and treated as a community rather than separate entities, it could be seen that the levels of fear reported by these different groups may in fact be more similar than they first appear and their perceived risk of victimisation may be comparable despite fear levels appearing different.
Risk factors may be defined as the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. For the elderly a number of different risk factors may be attributed to their heightened fear of crime. The economic resources of the elderly can play an important role in their fear of crime. Generally, the income of an elderly family is two thirds lower than that of a younger family (Doerner & Lab, 1998). As a result of low income, many elderly people live in poor housing in run down areas, as finances do not allow them to move to better accommodation.
As maintained by Doerner and Lab (1998), these areas are seen to attract deviants as residents and are known to lure outsiders into the location to commit crime. As these areas attract younger and more ethnically diverse residents a sense of cultural isolation and a lack of a sense of community spirit is experienced by the elderly. It is suggested that crime in these neighbourhoods intensifies fear and feelings of lack of safety among the elderly whether or not crime is focussed against them.
Clarke and Lewis (1982) cite Baumers (1978) assertion that familiarity with other residents in an area not only reduces the number of people an elderly person may encounter on the street who are strangers to them but also provides a feeling that neighbours can be relied upon should assistance ever be required. Any lack of these social networks is thought to the elderly viewing the streets as unsafe (Clarke & Lewis, 1982).
In the Second Islington Crime Survey, Crawford et al (1990) record the fact that fear of crime is predominantly an urban event and concludes that, as such, fear of crime may be a reaction to vandalism, boarded up buildings, youths loitering on street corners and other indications of a hostile environment and not to actual rates of crime. Monetary aspects may mean the elderly people are compelled to walk or use public transport instead of their own vehicles. Both of these factors may be seen to expose the elderly to greater perceived risks of victimisation.
This may be especially pertinent if they dwell in run down areas and in particular if they are alone. A large number of elderly people live alone and for a variety of different reasons. Between both sexes, the likelihood of living alone increases with age. For women falling into the age range of 65 to 74 year olds, 32 percent live alone (US Census Bureau, 1996). This figure rises to 57 percent for those aged 85 years or more. For men, the corresponding proportions were 13 percent and 29 percent (ibid, 1996). It may be seen that with increasing age comes ever-increasing health problems and physical and mental frailty (Jones, 1987).
The fact that a great number of elderly people who are suffering from these types of health problems live alone can be observed to only add to their fears. Elderly people who do live alone are also more likely to be female than they are male. Figures from the United States Census Bureau (1996) state that men generally have higher death rates than women at every age thus producing a situation where elderly women are more than three times as likely as elderly men to be widowed. Just this situation resulted in elderly women outnumbering elderly men in 1994 by a ratio of 3 to 2 (US Census Bureau, 1996).
While most elderly men are married, most elderly women are not. Elderly men are nearly twice as likely as their female counterparts to be married and living with their spouse. Hence, while most elderly men have a partner for assistance, especially when health fails, most elderly women do not. This in turn may leave them lonely and feeling vulnerable and at risk. A number of criticisms have been levelled at previous research for not allowing for the gender differentials among elderly respondents to be taken into consideration (Clarke & Lewis, 1982; Pain, 1995).
They argue that as elderly women constitute around two thirds of the elderly population in the UK and elderly women report higher levels of fear than elderly men it could follow that the higher instances of fear among the elderly over the younger population may be due to differences in gender. Pain (1995) also points out that better representation of men in lower age groups may well have the effect of reducing cumulative levels of fear among younger age groups and as a result exaggerate fear of crime for the elderly.
Failing health and declining physical ability has also been seen to be a factor influencing the actual and perceived risks of victimisation in the elderly as thus increasing their fear of crime (Doerner & Lab, 1998). A large number of elderly victims of violent confrontation claim they had a distinct physical disadvantage compared to that of their assailant and that their offender was less than 30 years of age and an even higher number were stranger attacks (ibid, 1998). It could be construed from this that the elderly fear attacks by young strangers outside the home more than any other offence.
However, Pain (1995) stresses that the fear of physical attack outside the home was less of an issue for the elderly women than it was for younger women. This may be understood in the case of rape, but it also held true in fear of physical assault outside the home. Indeed, Pains' 1995 study revealed that women over 45 years were less likely to say they feared being beaten up by a stranger (46. 2 percent) than women under the age of 45 (64. 2 percent). One should consider that crime that may be perpetrated in the home by people they know might have an effect on the elderlys' fear of crime outside the home.
Victim surveys have been criticised for ignoring the possibility that the cumulative impact of crime experienced over a lifetime may have a bearing in later life that could be responsible for the elderly's acute fear of crime (Jones, 1987; Pain, 1995). Most surveys including the British Crime Survey take a short view and examine crime committed during the previous twelve months and ask if participants think they will be victimised in the coming year (Mirrlees & Allen, 1998).
Surveys that gauge fear of crime among the elderly usually takes a narrow view of which situations are likely to produce fear (namely public places) at the expense of crime committed within private settings that could effect the elderly individuals perceptions of risk (Pain, 1995). Whilst risk factors alone may not appear to account for the high fear of crime among the elderly, their feelings of vulnerability may add weight to explain this paradox. Vulnerability refers to the elderlys susceptibility to becoming a victim of crime and their capacity to cope if they do.
As pointed out earlier, a declining physical status and increases in ill health can add to the risk of the elderly becoming a victim of crime and so heighten fear. These factors can also add to the elderlys feeling of vulnerability. As the elderly are less likely to be able to defend themselves in the face of an attack they are also more likely to be more severely injured (Williams, 1991; Croall, 1998). If they are injured as a result of an attack they are more likely to be hospitalised and their injuries are more prone to take longer to heal (Croall, 1998).
Crawford et al (1990) indicate that the physiological and psychological costs of crime to the elderly could well be more significant than to younger and stronger sections of society. The fact that elderly members of the community face a lesser risk of victimisation may possibly be seen to be offset by the greater vulnerability they feel with any contact to crime (Zedner, 1997). As well as exacerbating the supposed risk of victimisation for elderly people, financial concerns can also add weight to their feelings of vulnerability.
With a reduced income, acts of vandalism or instances of burglary become more difficult to tolerate (Croall, 1998). This may be because having less income makes repairs to the elderlys' property easier said than done or the replacement of stolen goods more difficult. Any loss of personal possessions regardless of their worth can affect the elderly significantly (Doerner & Lab, 1998). The transitory nature of today's families may intensify feelings of vulnerability among the elderly (Doerner & Lab, 1998). Many family members nowadays live in different parts of the country to parents or siblings as a result of work commitments.
Elderly people may feel that with the family being spread out in different areas, less support will be available to them if something goes wrong. This may include becoming a victim of crime and so add to fears about the impact victimisation will have to an elderly person (Zedner, 1997; Croall, 1998). The view that the elderly fear crime more than they are actually victimised could be due to lifestyle changes they have made because of their fear (Williams, 1991). Staying in their homes instead of going out, especially late at night for instance lessens the risk of the elderly being victimised on the street.
In this way their fears contribute to their low rates of victimisation and suggest that it is not as irrational as survey figures suggest (ibid, 1991). A number of different factors that could explain the fear of crime paradox in the elderly have been put forward. It remains unclear if any one of the issues do account for is heightened fear but it may be possible that a mixture of issues could explain it. The definition of fear could contribute and it may be that some elderly people are just concerned about crime and not actually fearful.
The approach with which fear is measured and the results presented could be another contributing factor. As the elderly tend to be lumped together the possibility that differing age groups within the elderly population experience fear differently is ill explored. If one adds to this the factor that gender is rarely recognised and one could see that being elderly could be just a small reason for the old to fear crime. It may appear then that the elderly do not actually fear crime as much as was previously thought and recent times have seen some researchers questioning the idea of a fear of crime paradox among the elderly.