Older women suffer domestic abuse too

On International Day of Older Persons, we’re focusing on the often-hidden issue of domestic abuse of older women. Domestic abuse is often wrongly considered to be a younger person’s problem, with many support services tailoring their response towards a younger audience.

Amongst older women, domestic abuse is a largely hidden crime. It is very true that older survivors are hugely underrepresented among domestic abuse support services, but this does not reflect the extent of the abuse they are suffering.

A report by SafeLives based on research conducted between 2016 and 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.

Why don’t older survivors access support?

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 professionals 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 attribute 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 concerning especially given that a disclosure of abuse is more likely if victims are offered repeated opportunities to disclose.

Issues of dependency in older survivors of abuse can be another barrier in preventing them from accessing help. Nearly half of over 60’s has 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.

Adult children can become abusive towards parents too

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 ‘child’. 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.

Support services need to tailor their response

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 support a number of over 60’s. We are pro-active in reaching out to older survivors so they feel comfortable in coming forward and accessing support. 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.

“The boys had always been her reason to stay, but now for the first time they were her reason to leave. She’d allowed violence to become a normal part of their life.” a quote from Liane Moriarty

Survivor’s story

Mary was sexually assaulted by her husband on their first date. She was 17 and very naïve but was very distressed when he forced himself upon her despite her making it clear it was not what she wanted. Mary fell pregnant and her parents were horrified and exerted pressure on her to accept Harry’s proposal of marriage. He frightened her and she had no feelings for him but felt she had no options.

Together they had three children. From the outset, Mary became isolated from family and friends. She couldn’t speak to anyone about the rape and why she was frightened of her husband, she kept her feelings bottled up and became withdrawn. Harry forced sex on a habitual basis but although Mary never wanted it, she didn’t dare refuse him. As well as the sexual abuse, Harry was emotionally controlling and would make Mary feel worthless by telling her no-one else would want her because she was scruffy and ugly and that he was doing her a favour staying with her.

There was no direct physical abuse but Mary became increasingly crushed by Harry’s behaviour towards her that when she was 52 and all the children had left home, she attempted suicide by overdosing. Following this she disclosed her situation to hospital staff for the first time and was referred by her GP for counselling. It was during counselling that Mary began to understand enormity of the abuse she had suffered. She was encouraged by her counsellor to access the help of a local Women’s Aid group and with their help and support found the inner resources to move out of her abusive marriage.