Elder abuse is another aspect of family violence, but it's not so much that adult children are beating up their frail parents. Social workers now realize that children's abuse of parents is only part of the problem. Usually in cases involving the elderly, the abuser is a spouse.

Rosalie S. Wolf, associate director of the Center on Aging of the University of Massachusetts and coauthor of the book "Elder Abuse, Conflict in the Family," said some studies suggest that about 3 percent of the older population might suffer abuse. However, she added, "there are a lot of numbers bandied about, but few studies."

One study at the University of New Hampshire she cited looked at about 2,000 older people in the Boston area, concentrating on abuse, physical and psychological, but not neglect. The study found: More men were victims than women. "Abuse is a product of people living together and, generally, older men tend to live with women, often younger women, whereas women often live alone," said Wolf. At the same time, women were more likely than men to report abuse when it occurred, and abuse of women tended to be more life-threatening. Only 25 percent suffered abuse by an adult child, whereas 65 percent were abused by a spouse. "Sometimes, the abuse is simply a continuation of a life-long situation." said Wolf.

"Mostly," she said, "adult children don't live with parents, and when they do, it is because they have some problem." One study shows that 40 percent of adult children living at home have a history of mental illness or alcoholism. "They were living with parents because they, not the parents, were unable to live alone," she said. One videotape made at the University of Massachusetts and described by Wolf showed a relatively healthy but increasingly frail couple who were taking care of a mentally retarded daughter they had protected all their lives. Now, the daughter was beating them.

"It's not the caregiver stereotype at all," Wolf said.