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Much has been said and studied about child abuse and spouse abuse. Now the federal government is gearing up to do an intensive study of a largely hidden and often ignored crime - abuse of the elderly.

No one is sure how many older Americans - age 60 and above - are mistreated because most of the abuse, either physical, financial, psychological or sexual, occurs at home and is unreported.Some sketchy studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that 1.5 million of the nation's 33 million older citizens may be victims of moderate to severe abuse every year. It can be one of the most crippling emotional problems an older person faces, and help is rare.

Part of the difficulty is that older victims may be reluctant to speak out or seek help because of embarrassment, because their children may be involved, or simply because they are intimidated, confused or helpless.

In addition, police and prosecutors often are ill-equipped to deal with such cases, regarding them as domestic matters, much the same way that spouse abuse often is ignored or not seen as a criminal matter.

A three-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will attempt to measure the scope and extent of abuse of elderly people nationwide. Once such information is in hand, the agency hopes to work with lawmakers, police and families to avoid and prevent abuse of the elderly.

But the real cure is an ancient one. It is found in the repeated and clearly stated biblical injunction to "Honor thy father and thy mother." There is no substitute for that command.