Never too old

Domestic Abuse in Older Women

This is one of four blogs focussing on domestic abuse in Older Women leading up to International Day for Older Persons on 1st October 2018.

Domestic abuse is often wrongly considered to be a younger person’s problem, with many support services tailoring their response towards a younger audience. It is very true that older victims are hugely underrepresented among domestic abuse support services, but this does not reflect the extent of the abuse they are suffering. Amongst older people, domestic abuse is a largely hidden crime.

A report by Safe Lives based on research conducted between 2016 / 2017 uncovered some shocking statistics relating to domestic abuse in older people. It was concluded that the over 60’s experience abuse for twice as long as the under 60’s before accessing help. Older survivors are also more likely to be living with the perpetrator, even after accessing support, and are much less likely to attempt to leave the abusive relationship. Abuse within this group really is a major issue, but also a hidden problem, they suffer from systematic invisibility.

The reasons older survivors do not access support are wide ranging. We know they are less likely to identify their situation as abuse. They were also brought up in an era where marriage was considered for life, and that their private lives should be kept behind closed doors. This belief was also reinforced by professionals such as the police, who would dismiss domestic abuse as ‘only a domestic’. They are more likely to assume that professional aren’t interested, because in the past this was the case. Although domestic abuse is considered more seriously now, professionals don’t appear to identify it in older people. Health workers are still more likely to link injuries, confusion or depression to age related concerns than domestic abuse in this group. Because so few older survivors access domestic abuse services, it creates a myth that abuse amongst this group simply does not happen, and professionals who could potentially be supportive are blinded by this myth. This lack of recognition amongst health professionals is crucial given that disclosure of abuse is more likely if victims are offered repeated opportunities to do so.

Issues of dependency in older abuse victims can be another barrier in preventing them from accessing help. Nearly half of over 60’s have a disability which can isolate them from support networks and also exacerbate vulnerability to harm. It is sometimes the case that an older victim is carer for the perpetrator, or the perpetrator cares for them, and these issues can make it less easy for survivors to walk away from the relationship. Being cared for by an abuser raises a host of additional problems. It’s also difficult when the individual being cared for becomes the perpetrator, and medical issues such as chronic pain or dementia can exacerbate aggression.

Disability may also make older victims more vulnerable to the risk of adult family abuse. The SafeLives report found that 44% of older survivors were being abused by other than intimate family members, whereas this figure was 6 % for the under 60 age group. Distinct issues can arise in adult family abuse. All too often adult children neglect their parents’ care needs in order to avoid costly care options that may impact on potential inheritance. Care packages are often set up, then a few days later, the adult child rings up saying mother has changed her mind and is refusing the care. It is extremely difficult for someone who is disabled and infirm to complain about abuse from their family, particularly their adult ‘children’. This group could not really be more vulnerable. Also, adult children who are experiencing mental health or drug dependence can become abusive towards parents, and again this type of abuse is generally restricted to older survivors.

As we can see, domestic abuse amongst older survivors is a complex issue that requires a more tailored response from support services. There is a need for training amongst professionals who may have contact with this group. Not only are their particular needs often different from the needs of younger survivors, but the type of abuse they suffer and the family dynamics surrounding the abuse are often more complex and difficult to manage.

At Broxtowe Women’s Project, we are trained to deal with domestic abuse in older survivors. Our outreach staff also support a number of over 60’s. We are not complacent though and realise there is much to be done to reach out to older survivors and make them feel comfortable in coming forward and accessing support. We are currently reviewing our ‘about us and what we do’ literature, and our links with referral agencies, in the hope that we can be more accessible to older survivors. It is important to us that we do all that we can to ensure that older survivors do not suffer in silence, unaware of the support that is available to them.